Tracy Turnblad is happy with her teen life in 1962. And unrepressed joy bursts out through her feet and hips and mile-high, hairspray-shellacked bouffant as she dances down the streets of her beloved Baltimore.
Tracy also loves The Corny Collins Show, an American Bandstand-style TV program that she runs home every day after school to watch. If only she could dance on that show (and maybe even win the affections of the hunky-in-an-Elvis-sort-of-way Link) then her dreams would all come true. But Tracy's got a problem. She's too pleasingly plump for TV. And her size 60 mom implores her to give up on such silly hopes.
But Tracy dreams on. And then one day a spot opens on the show. Her best friend, Penny, and new "Negro" friend, Seaweed, both convince her that this is her big shot.
Tracy wows the judges, but she also earns a new enemy in Velma Von Tussle, the TV station's manager. Velma can't abide the idea of a fat girl dancing on her show and taking attention away from her beautiful daughter, Amber. She finds this as irritating as "Negro Day," an all-black show that she's forced to air once a month. The last straw? Tracy voices her opinion that the white kids and the Negro youth ought to dance side by side every day.
Velma starts scheming to make The Corny Collins Show Negro- and fat-free.
From the opening song, Good Morning Baltimore, Tracy is happy and optimistic about the possibilities of life. She's more than willing to stand by her new black friends, even though they warn her that it will mean trouble. When she realizes that things aren't always perfect ("I think I was living in a bubble or something. Thinking that fairness was just going to happen"), she refuses to let that fact dissuade her from seeking what's right.
Tracy's dad, Wilbur, comforts her and encourages her to work hard for her dreams. When Tracy gets a spot on the dance show, her mom apologizes for telling her not to try. Wilbur sings to his wife and points out how much he loves her ("When I need a lift/Time brings a gift/Another day with you"). Motormouth Maybelle, the black host of Negro Day, sings of the societal changes needed in the future ("To just sit still would be a sin"). Link is drawn both to Tracy's beauty and quality of character.
Tracy sings that her desire for something exciting in life is "like a message from high above." About her forever love for Link, she croons, "When we die, we'll look down from above."
Corny Collins crosses himself before the start of the show.
Penny's mom, who is depicted as a very controlling Christian woman, forbids her daughter to watch The Corny Collins Show. She does encourage Penny to pray for her friend, though. Randomly, she quotes a scripture from Genesis: "Let us make our father drink wine, and let us lie with him." (I'll deal with her in a little more depth in my "Conclusion.")
Velma pulls tissues out of a girl's stuffed bra during a break in filming, then walks over to a young man ... and he pulls a sock out of his pants. Velma references winning the title of Miss Baltimore and "screwing the judges" to get it. She later talks of risking communicable disease to win the pageant.
The camera seems obsessed with close looks at different dancers shaking their backsides (particularly Tracy's full-size real one and Edna's oversized fake one). Tracy rubs across her breast and slaps her backside during a dance. And the dancing gets a bit sensual at a platter party held in Motormouth's record shop.
Motormouth shows cleavage while wearing a muumuu. When Edna tells a store owner that her bra size is a 54 EEE, he says, "I hit the mother lode." Some of the girls wear tight and midriff-baring outfits. Velma wears a slinky dress while trying to seduce Wilbur. (He doesn't respond.)
Penny and Seaweed kiss a couple times, and Tracy and Link kiss on camera during the show. Singing about her love for Link, Tracy says, "I won't go all the way/But I'll go pretty far." Amber spreads rumors about Tracy having sex with the football team.
A handful of double entendres and innuendoes (some of which are racially charged), and a reference to one of the girls having to leave on a "nine-month break" round out the sexual nods. A man opens his trench coat and flashes a group of people on the street—but not the camera.
Amber falls, and is slapped in the face and elbowed around during an on-air production number.
Crude or Profane Language
"D--n" is said four or five times; "a--" once. "Oh my god" is exclaimed several times as well.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A drunk passes out on the table at a bar. Later, pregnant women are seen drinking martinis and smoking. Tracy sings her way through the teacher's lounge (in which all of the adults smoke). Teens smoke in the girl's bathroom. Edna references drinking rum and Coke with the hoi polloi. Featured in Wilbur's gift shop is a toy donkey that dispenses cigarettes from, well, underneath its tail.
Other Negative Elements
When a patron complains that Edna's washing service fees are too high, she retorts with, "Some of your personal stains require pounding out with a rock." After Edna and Wilbur fight, he makes a whoopee cushion bed for himself and the gas jokes follow. Wilbur tries to sell candy in the shape of animal droppings.
Motormouth warns Penny that if she helps in the protest march she will receive "a whole lot of ugly coming from a never ending parade of stupid." Penny responds, "So, you've met my mom?"
Hairspray was created as a small and campy teen flick in 1988 by the subversively edgy writer/director John Waters. (He made his mark with such films as Pink Flamingos, which boasts a 400-pound transvestite who eats dog feces, and Polyester, which was presented with an accompanying scratch-and-sniff card to add noxious olfactory emphasis.) His original was eventually homogenized and transposed into Broadway musical form. And it's that tune-filled Tony-winner that has now found its way back to the mall multiplex.
On paper, this Hairspray has a lot going for it. The story of a young girl who stands up to prejudice in an early '60s Baltimore is inviting and cheer-worthy. Its actors are multi-talented and bring a broad appeal to their roles. Dancer-turned-director Adam Shankman (who also helmed Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and A Walk to Remember) gives every dancer's step and twist a polished charm. The music bounces and pleases from the opening number to the closing credits.
But, unfortunately, this musical picture is also oddly off key and off color; it's unnecessarily offensive and sometimes downright strange. Most bizarre is John Travolta's latex- and fat suit-laden portrayal of Edna Turnblad. As I watched his peculiarly accented performance and "dance of the hippos" musical numbers, I understood why he might want to take on this acting challenge. Though I'm not so sure why a director would want to cast him as her, or why an audience would want to watch what happens, short of experiencing the initial novelty.
Travolta isn't what makes this movie fall on its face, though. Responsible for that are a handful of profanities, sexual snickers, sleazed-up dance moves ... and one other significant thing: Virtually every white adult character is either a bigot or too stupid to care. The one "Christian"—a tightly-wound, pinch-faced, cross-carrier—is so mean she ties her daughter to the bed so the girl can't possibly leave the room and get mixed up with "those people." She leaves the bound girl to listen to a recording of the Lord's Prayer and spits out, "Devil's child!" on her way out.
I wasn't really a fan of the original Waters movie, but I do love musicals. So I walked into the theater for this screening with mixed feelings. And walked out feeling the same way because, in spite of all of Hairspray's potential, its disquieting trip-ups cause it to fall short of the prettily coiffed, fancy-footed fun it could have been.