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Hairspray 2007: A Field Report From The Hinterlands

by Joe Blevins

Generally, being a John Waters fan is a pretty damned good deal, not nearly as embarrassing as being a Trekkie or, God forbid, a Deadhead or Parrothead. Like many Dreamland aficionados, I'm one of those cornfed Midwesterners (born and raised in Michigan, currently living in Illinois) who were charmed by the uniquely prickly East Coast sensibility found in Waters' work -- a sensibility not generally found in mainstream pop culture -- and took comfort in the fact that somewhere out there was a likeminded individual who had found success and popularity with his nutty ideas. I can remember discovering a copy of Crackpot at the tiny local library and finding it scandalously, achingly funny. I quoted passages to anyone who would listen. I was hooked. I was a believer. Since then, I've had movies and books to cherish, and Waters -- through his seemingly non-stop torrent of giddy, generous recommendations -- has led me to countless other movies by other directors, not to mention books, albums, and works of art. I just finished reading Flannery O'Connor's astounding Wise Blood, for instance, which I'd first heard about in Waters' "Puff Piece" article. For the most part, unlike other celebrities I could mention, our favorite director has refrained from gouging his fans. "Product shortage is what I'm all about," Waters once wrote, and he's kept that promise. There's a movie every few years, some nice DVDs once in a while, and occasionally a book or CD... just enough to satisfy the faithful.

And then there's Hairspray: The Musical. I approached this movie with a mixture of excitement and dread. (About six parts dread to one part excitement, truth be told.) Waters' original 1988 Hairspray, of course, holds a special place in the heart of every Dreamland fanatic. It was the first of Waters' films to really achieve mainstream acceptance and good reviews, but also the last to ever feature the incomparable Divine. I never actually saw the stage production, but I purchased the Broadway cast album and found it too sugary by half, apart from a few delightful songs like "Cooties," "Blood on the Pavement," and "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now." For the most part, this new Hairspray seemed to be a sanitized, lobotomized, saccharine version of Waters' modern classic with all the rough edges smoothed away for the Broadway crowd. The music did its best to ape the sound of early 1960s pop and R&B, but you simply can't top the real thing. No modern showtune (and that's what these are) can hope to compete with a geniune relic like "Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)" or a timeless classic like "Duke of Earl." Give me an artifact over an imitation every time. The lyrics, while occasionally funny, sounded more than a little contrived. I winced at the forced cleverness and sometimes painful rhymes. Worst of all, every time I saw the cast performing the songs on TV -- at the Tony Awards, for instance -- there was a goody-two-shoes, Up With People vibe that I just couldn't tolerate.

So now the whole shebang's been made into a movie, and of course, I had to go on opening day to see it for myself. This was the quite likely the only remake of a John Waters picture there would ever be. How could I stay away? John even has a cameo in it! I promised that I was going into this thing with an open mind. After all, I plunked down nearly ten bucks (!) to see it, and it had been getting some very decent reviews. Why not just enjoy it for what it is? I was pleased to see that he 8:20pm showing attracted a healthy crowd -- overwhelmingly white, predominately female, lots of children and families -- and I settled in for some fun, only slightly upset that I was seated next to THE worst kind of moviegoers: a group of giggly teenage girls I just knew would talk through the entire movie. (They did. More about them later.)

Let's get down to cases. The new Hairspray is a cute, likeable, little bon bon which America will probably love and which Dreamland fans will probably find redundant and a little dull. I will not bore you by enumerating the differences between the 1988 version and the 2007 version. I will only say that much of what I loved about the original -- Amber's pimple-popping, the pot-smoking beatniks, the Titlted Acres amusement park, Watersian phrases like "hair hopper" and "hairdo detention," and of course those marvelous 1962 oldies -- are absent from this version. The musical movie does have one advantage over the stage version in that it cuts a few of the songs and streamlines the plot, sparing us a few torturous plot devices. Unfortunately, both "Cooties" and "Big Girl" get lost on the shuffle, the former relegated to background music and the later consigned to the Siberia of the end credits. That said, there are still way too many songs in the movie, and I longed to be watching one of those musicals where the songs really stand out because they're separated by long stretches of plot and dialogue. Here, you're never more than a few seconds away from someone breaking out in song (I remember thinking: "Oh, god, Li'l Inez is going to sing!"), and there are scenes in which spoken dialogue really would have gotten the job done more efficiently. My favorite numbers were the Ronnettes-like opening number, "Good Morning Baltimore" -- nimbly staged with a funny John Waters cameo -- and the intentionally ludicrous romantic ballad "I Can Hear the Bells." On the other hand, though, Queen Latifah sings a maudlin, earnest, "serious" racial integration song -- accompanied by Eyes on the Prize-type images of marching protestors -- which brings the movie to a dead halt about midway through. I found the finale, "You Can't Stop the Beat," to be all but interminable. The number drags on and on, mysteriously relegating Nikki Blonsky (by far the best thing in this movie) to the sidelines when she should be the center of attention. Compare this to the brilliant finale of the original: Debbie Harry's wig exploding, everyone dancing spastically to "The Bug" and Rikki Lake's amazing cockroach dress. No contest!

As for the cast, let's start with Travolta. Does the performance work? Well, yes and no. It works best when he's dancing, of course, and I cherished the scene in which he got to dance with the equally fleet-footed Christopher Walken. When he speaks, though, the voice is distractingly bizarre. His mushmouthed drawl made him sound like he'd suffered a stroke. Divine remains the definitive Edna Turnblad. The rest of the cast is quite good, including the stars in the adult roles and the male and female ingenues in the "teen" roles. But remember those giggly girls I mentioned earlier? They kept up a constant stream of chatter throughout the movie, of course, and they were in dread horror of the idea that Travolta and Walken might actually kiss, a fear they discussed every time the actors had a scene together. "Homophobia in a Hairpsray audience?" I thought. "That's a new one!" The movie seemed to be sensitive to their fears. I counted only one kiss between Walken and Travolta: a chaste peck on the cheek. Even this was enough to elicit an "eeeyyyw!" from the girls. The girls' other major complaint was about Penny Pingleton's hair. "Gawd, I hate her hair!" one exclaimed. "I hate her bangs," another replied. Watch, they'll all be copying those bangs in a few weeks. Maybe accepting Penny's bangs will be their first step on the road to enlightenment.

As for me, I emerged from the theater roughly two hours later: mildly entertained, a little depressed, and ten bucks poorer. It's an acceptable film, fun for what it is and not an insult to the original, but there's no need to ever see it again... unless Waters records a DVD commentary, that is.