Friday, January 4, 2008

Who Would WANT To Stop the Beat?

When I was young, Grease was one of my favorite movies. I watched it constantly. I saw it again recently, and I still love it, even though I cringe at its ultimately conformist message. Sandy has to become a slut for Danny to want her. Fitting in is cool. I was so fond of it at such an early age that the disturbing message zoomed right over my head. I know the message is wrong, but I can't help but feel affection for such a big part of my youth. I'm also shocked at how racy it is. It's filthy! And it's PG!

Now, don't get me wrong, it's filthy in the best way possible, but I was stunned. I feel similarly about the PG rating for Hairspray (the 2007 musical version). Grease is much more sexual and offensive, but Hairspray deals with some intense issues (racism), and there's a fair amount of dirty dancing, mild cursing, and sexual innuendos. The difference with Hairspray, and why I feel the PG rating is deserved, is that Hairspray actually says something worthwhile in the most exuberant, inoffensive way possible. It's so much fun that those rating threats are neutralized. But don't let its fun, shiny, colorful exterior fool you - it's a scathing attack on racism and conformity. It just uses 1960s Baltimore as the backdrop.

There's a lot going on plot-wise, so I'll be brief and let you discover the rest on your own if you're not familiar with the story. Pleasantly plump Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) wants to dance on the Corny Collins Show, but she's told she can't because of her weight. She's an idealistic dreamer and firmly believes the world can be a better place, but sometimes you have to fight for what's right. She can dance those skinny girls under the table, and she knows it, and soon all of Baltimore knows it. She befriends black kids and joins their fight for racial equality (the film is set right at the peak of the civil rights movement). Tracy gets on TV, but the black kids (who used to dance, separated from the whites by a rope, one day a month on "Negro Day") are forbidden to appear on the show. Skinny, white America can't tolerate anyone who is the least bit different. Where Grease is about conforming, Hairspray is about diversity and shattering conventional norms. It's really quite inspiring and powerful, and the film always find the right note. It knows when to be serious and when not to be to maximize the effect.

Another reason I mentioned Grease is John Travolta. He couldn't be any further from Danny Zucko as Tracy's mother (yep, mother) Edna. I haven't been too keen on him lately because of all his Scientology shenanigans, but he really commits to this part, complete with elaborate fat suit and make-up that apparently took 4 hours to put on every day. He's barely recognizable beneath all the extra skin. But here's the shocker - he makes Edna really sweet and loveable. He's fantastic. Tracy's dad Wilbur is played by Christopher Walken. One of the most delightful numbers in the film is the duet between him and Travolta. I never thought I'd see John Travolta in drag dancing romantically with Christopher Walken. It's priceless.

There's another Grease alum - Grease 2, that is. Michelle Pfeiffer starred in that abomination against humanity. She plays a raging bitch in both, too. It's just funny to see the two stars of the Grease films together here. Pfeiffer ages really well. She's so sexy and delicious in her evil role. Amanda Bynes is adorable as Tracy's best friend Penny, and boy, can she sing. Penny has a religious zealot of a mother played with zest by Allison Janney. (I know its inclusion is somewhat random and it's awkwardly placed, but I had to include the still of the two of them - it's such a great scene.) Teenage girls get all swoony about Zac Efron, and he's okay as Tracy's love interest, but Elijah Kelley (black dancer Seaweed) totally outshines him. He's tremendous. Queen Latifah plays Motormouth Maybelle, a firecracker DJ at the forefront of the integration movement. Queen Latifah is outstanding. She might have the best voice of the whole cast. She was great in Chicago, and she's wonderful here. I don't know why she keeps making such crappy movies. More musicals, please. I actually got chills during her song while they're marching on the TV station.

I also got chills during the frantic final musical number, a really extended version of "You Can't Stop the Beat," the most catchy song I've heard in a long time. It's just extraordinary, one of the most joyous, uplifting scenes I've seen in any film. It's infectious - I couldn't stop smiling. Adam Shankman, whose previous directing credits include the prestigious Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and the critical darling The Pacifier, has made his masterpiece. I hate to say it, but I think this is it for him. But what a triumph. He also choreographed this musical extravaganza, which is really impressive. Shankman brings so much energy to Hairspray. He's obviously talented. Next, he'll probably direct Queen Latifah's next film about a holiday.

I loved this film, but I have some reservations about Nikki Blonsky. I know she's an unknown and they found her working in a Dairy Queen in the middle of nowhere and she always dreamed of playing Tracy and blah blah blah. She's cute and enthusiastic and a really great singer, but I think she goes a little over the top with her performance. She enunciates like she's making sure the people in the balcony can hear her. She's just a shade too plucky. I never felt like much was going on beneath the surface, even though it's a valiant effort. I really do admire her, and I can tell she loves what she's doing. I just think she's lucky to be surrounded by such a superb cast. They pick up any slack. But hey, for a first time out, she's exceptional.

This is definitely one of the most fun films I've seen all year. It's nice to see something that just makes you feel good. I was tapping my feet and bopping along to the music. I watched all the ending credits because the music was so damn good. It's a great musical, film or stage. It's rare to see something so blatantly cheerful and adamantly optimistic. And what a great message. No sluts here. Just tolerance and a celebration of diversity - black, white, fat, thin, whatever. Love yourself no matter what. How simple, and how beautiful. Everyone needs reassurance sometimes, especially in such a superficial society, and Hairspray made me feel wonderful about myself and my body. I have curves, and I love them.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

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