John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky. Zac Efron ( left ) and Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray.
Bette Midler must be kicking herself across the street. After deciding that it was a hair-brained idea to turn the notorious John Waters film Hairspray into a musical and turning down the chance to invest in it, she's also not going to receive any percentage from the film version that, by all rights, is going to be as big a smash as its Broadway antecedent. That's because out director-choreographer Adam Shankman and his all-star cast ( led by John Travolta in drag ) has wrought an inventive, infectious little musical gem. Even more than The Little Shop of Horrors, this musical version of Hairspray is a triumph of the form from beginning to end—thanks in no small part to the unerring gay sensibility of its creators.
I confess to having my doubts—big ones. First, I'm a gigantic fan of the original Waters film, a retelling of his youthful exuberance in Baltimore for a local version of an American Bandstand-style TV show and the dreamy teens that danced each day on the show told via his lead character, the happy, innocent outsider Tracy Turnblad. Turnblad happens to be a rotund 'hair hopper' who just wants a chance to show her stuff out on the floor and perhaps one day see it integrated it with the much hipper 'Negro Day.'
Waters' movie seems, on reflection, like a perfect culmination ( minus the vulgarity ) of his sharp ear for dialogue, eye for sight gag parody, and his preferred theme of the cool outsiders versus the boring conformists. Certainly, it's the most heartfelt movie Waters has made. ( The inclusion of the topical race issue also deepens it—something his other pictures before and after have lacked. ) And even in what is essentially a supporting part, in his final drag role as Edna—the mother of the dance-crazy, corpulent Tracy—Divine never fails to elicit laughs and affection.
When mother and daughter ( Ricki Lake, in her movie debut ) walk out of Hefty Hideaway in their matching outfits and hairdos while perched on their stilettos, the movie reaches a comic height that the stage show, expert though it was in its construction, never quite seemed to match. Gone was the defiant edginess of Waters' film along with many of his memorable fringe characters, streamlined to make the musical more 'family-friendly.' Gone, too, were the wonderful period songs Waters lovingly chose to illustrate the early '60s, with Madison Time being the biggest loss. Though the character of Edna was still essayed by a large guy in drag, one still heard the unmistakable voice of Divine ( who died not long after the movie's release in 1988 ) in the part.
On the stage, the breakneck pacing blurred the terrific score by real-life couple Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman as it zoomed by. Shankman slows things down just enough so that each song and dance is given real distinction and the editing of the musical numbers is beautifully handled by Michael Tronick. Where Waters' movie featured his signature sloppy, grungy look, Shankman's gleams with its impossibly bright lighting, costumes and sets and the movie sparkles with vitality. Laugh expert Leslie Dixon also provides fresh, sharp zingers with her screenplay adaptation.
Shankman is aided in no small measure by his breathtakingly beautiful cast. Travolta and his vis-à-vis, Christopher Walken, aside, everyone else in the film, male and female ( including the impossibly perky Nikki Blonsky ) are certified dreamboats. Not only are James Marsden as Corny Collins, Michelle Pfeiffer as evil station manager Velma Von Tussle, Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle and teen heartthrob Zac Efron as teen heartthrob Link Larkin easy on the eyes, but they're easy on the ears and the Shaiman-Wittman score is served well by all the distinctive star wattage. Shankman also adds cameos for himself, the Shaiman-Wittmans, Ricki Lake and Waters, who appears, Hitckcock-like, at the picture's outset.
The gimmick of Travolta in the drag role and wearing a fat suit was my biggest stumbling block, but the actor gives himself over to the role. Sporting a Baltimore accent that becomes a comic weapon, Travolta gets you to root for the housebound, tough ( and vulnerable ) Edna; when she finally kicks up her heels at the film's conclusion, you experience the joy right along with her. It's the movie's best comic sight gag, and it knocked the chip off my shoulder—along with any doubts I had about this new, re-imagined version of Hairspray.
—Handsome and talented Farley Granger only made a handful of memorable films before leaving Hollywood to pursue his love of theatre. But two of his movies, 1948's Rope and 1951's Strangers on a Train ( both directed by Alfred Hitchcock ) , are considered classics. ( They're also the director's most homoerotic works. ) Granger will attend a double-feature screening of the movies on July 22 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport; there, he will discuss the making of both with author/film historian Foster Hirsch and sign copies of his new autobiography, Include Me Out. In the book—written with his partner of nearly 45 years, Robert Calhoun—Granger acknowledges his bisexuality and details affairs with Shelley Winters, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents. Strangers screens at 2:30 p.m. with a discussion to follow, while Rope shows at 5:15 p.m. Tickets are $15. www.musicboxtheatre.com
—There's more hairspray in the air this week when PBS televises the hilarious and insightful HairWorld: The Pursuit of Excellence, a documentary that follows the U.S. hairstylist team ( made up of Southern folks ) preparing for the Olympics of hairdressing, the 31st HairWorld Championships held in Moscow. Sculptured, candy-colored bouffants and variations on the Elvis pompadour are just two of the hairstyles vividly explored. It's scheduled to air July 25; check www.pbs.org to confirm date and time.
—Yet another A-list gay themed buddy comedy movie, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, stars Adam Sandler and Kevin James as two straight firemen who pose as a gay couple to qualify for domestic partnership benefits. The movie screened passed my deadline, so my review will appear next week.
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . People can leave feedback at the latter Web site, where there is also find ordering information on my new book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.