Technicolor Dancing and Delirium circa 1960's Baltimore

The Popcorn Reel Movie Review: "Hairspray"

By Omar P.L. Moore/July 21, 2007

The truth of yesteryear: The story of Petula and Harry on American television, circa 1968.


Almost 40 years ago, on April 8, 1968 -- four days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. -- on her first NBC television special, Petula Clark, the England-born singing legend, lightly tapped American-born singing and acting legend Harry Belafonte on the arm during a duet they sung.  It was the first time that physical contact was made between a black man and a white woman on American television.  Days before the special aired, Clark was asked by a representative from Chrysler, which sponsored her special, to edit out her light touch of Mr. Belafonte's arm, fearing that white Southerners would be offended.  Clark, who owned the rights to her special, refused.  The show received record ratings and was a critical success.  (Note the Freudian "tonight 8:00 in color" in the above ad.)

A penny now in 2007 for the thoughts of Petula Clark, 74, and Harry Belafonte, 80, should they watch this latest incarnation of "Hairspray", which opened yesterday.  Adam Shankman's film, based on the original Broadway musical, is one that is hard not to love.  Constantly vivacious, exuberant and energetic to the max, "Hairspray" is set six years before Petula Clark's special, and in Baltimore.  Tracy Turnblad (played by Nicole "Nikki" Blonsky, in a remarkable feature film debut) serenades the town radiantly and with all the cheer and happiness one could expect from one on her way to school.  And from there, the energy of Mr. Shankman's film only flies higher. 

A regal Queen: Latifah on target as Motormouth Maybelle, and exciting newcomer Nicole "Nikki" Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad in Adam Shankman's "Hairspray" a funny, fantastic swarm of sight, sound and color.  (All color photos: David James/New Line Cinema)

Baltimore in 1962 is as segregated as ever, and television has not witnessed a black and a white person dancing with each other, and on The Corny Collins Show, the closest thing to integrated dance halls is Negro Pride Day, a separate event for blacks which comes around once a week.  Off the Baltimore (and the nation's) television screens, the school detention rooms are the other place where blacks and whites "mix", but there's a whole lot of shaking of money makers going on.  Tracy hits it off with Seaweed J. Stubbs (Elijah Kelley) and before long she freely interacts with him while keeping an adoring eye on an Elvis Presley look-alike named Link (another newcomer, Zac Efron) who has been setting "The Corny Collins Show" alight with his sound and dance moves. 

John Travolta, indescribably amazing as Edna Turnblad, and Michelle Pfeiffer, who was in "Grease 2" way back when, stars in "Hairspray" as Velma Von Tuggle.

With "Hairspray" Mr. Shankman knows how to raise temperatures, whether sexual or racial (he did both with "Bringing Down The House") and all of his actors here give "Hairspray" every bit of the passion they have, most notably John Travolta, who does the drag routine superbly as Edna Turnblad.  Not only does the fat suit Mr. Travolta wears work, but the actor excels in spite of it, with a stupendous performance, so good that it is indescribable -- it has to be witnessed.  In a way it is fitting (no pun intended) that Travolta is part of this film, because this latest "Hairspray" is as good as, if not better than Mr. Travolta's last musical film "Grease", in its vigor, dynamism and passion -- and as a flat-out work of film art.  In the new film color is starched, scorched and saturated.  Costumes are sharp, pristine and natty.  Hairstyles are coiffed and sprayed to the nines, and everyone dresses and dances to kill.  In Tracy's case, her objective is to first get on to the popular show hosted by Corny Collins (James Marsden) -- a Dick Clark "American Bandstand" type host -- then to break the color barrier and to be successful in the Miss Teenage Hairspray pageant, though not necessarily in that order.

The best things about the new "Hairspray" are the musical numbers, the dancing, and the dialogue by Leslie Dixon, filled with many cheekily entertaining quips, innuendoes and double entendres.  Each character has his or her own story and separate films could easily be made about each. 

There is the phenomenal acting done by Michelle Pfeiffer as the racist and obnoxious Velma Von Tussle, and great work by Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle.  She is regal and grand, and worth every bit of her royal title here, and may even pick up a second Oscar nomination (her first was for another musical, "Chicago", which pales in comparison to this gem.  If Chicago won four Oscars or thereabouts, will "Hairspray" win any in 2008?)  One of the biggest highlights of "Hairspray" is Alison Janney's performance as Mrs. Pingleton, who has a very definite idea of how her daughter Penny (Amanda Bynes) should be raised.  If not for Mr. Travolta, "Hairspray" would be tucked squarely in Ms. Janney's back pocket. 

Petula, meet Penny: A Baltimore 1962 un-reality, in "Hairspray" as Amanda Bynes as Penny and Elijah Kelley as Seaweed, in an embrace pre-dating but in reality anteceding the then "controversial" hand-on-arm gesture by Petula Clark on Harry Belafonte, during Ms. Clark's television special on April 8, 1968, just four days after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination.

Seaweed and Penny share more than a light innocent touch of hands in Mr. Shankman's film, and in a 1962 America where the landmark Supreme Court case Loving vs. Virginia would later overturn the ban on interracial marriage in the U.S. in 1968, Seaweed and Penny would likely have been hung, drawn and quartered in reality 40 years ago for what they do in 1962 Baltimore in Mr. Shankman's musical.  Petula and Harry would have received death threats (and probably did after Ms. Clark's special in 1968) if they had done what Seaweed and Penny do.  There is still tremendous unease within movie audiences in 2007 America when Mr. Shankman's camera shows the two film characters sharing their feelings in a fictional 1962 setting.  One particular scene is a color-conscious taste test, if you will, for today's audiences, and judging from some of the silence and muted cheers during the scene in question, most filmgoing audiences would fail the truth serum test outright.  Credit Mr. Shankman for throwing the kitchen sink at the big screen and daring the most provincial to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater.  He knows how to push buttons and avoid safety, and that's what makes "Hairspray" so bold, brazen and beautiful. 

Newcomer Zac Efron as Link, doing his best Elvis Presley impression in "Hairspray".

Vanilla Sky: Brittany Snow as Amber Von Tuggle and James Marsden as Corny Collins (both center spotlight) in Adam Shankman's "Hairspray".

"Hairspray" makes a symbolic assessment of the American civil rights movement and like "Dreamgirls" tends to obliquely examine the seminal events of the crucial defining decade that was the sixties, even as its overarching theme is tailored to the integrationist overtones of more inclusive and diverse television entertainment.  This is the only place where "Hairspray" makes a misstep: the majority of those in the civil rights movement were not fighting as much for integration as they were for equal access, equal opportunity, fair treatment, and against separation from better facilities of learning, etc., and most importantly, fighting for justice.  (Some of the placards in one of the film's scenes say, "black and white together on television.")  While the film is based on the musical, a critical detour is taken when depicting the larger civil rights movement surrounding the events in Baltimore.  (So far this year, only "Talk To Me", the film by Kasi Lemmons, nails the chronicling of the American civil rights movement and its impact on the country during the critical and volatile sixties, as it is juxtaposed with the story of that film's characters.)

On another note, it's almost easy to forget Christopher Walken is present in this film as Wilbur Turnblad.  He is very good, yet uncharacteristically ordinary in comparison to the rest of the stellar cast.  "Hairspray" leaves no stone unturned in its entertainment value, and will in turn leave audiences glowing.  The film, which is as light and as airy as cotton candy, will be sure to shift even the most moody and mercurial hearts among humankind to upbeat and uplifting positions.

So Petula, Harry, what say you?

"Hairspray" opened yesterday across North America.  The film's duration is one hour and 47 minutes and is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking.  Leslie Dixon wrote the screenplay for the new film.  John Waters' 1988 film was the last cinematic entry in the "Hairspray" series.  Mr. Shankman's film also stars Brittany Snow and Jerry Stiller.

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2007.  All Rights Reserved.


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