Review: Hairspray

Let me begin by saying that I fully understand that this movie takes place in a ‘musical hyper reality’ – a fantasy version of Baltimore in the 1960’s. All the events and storytelling decisions have to be viewed with that context in mind. This ‘hyper reality’ works for certain aspects of the movie but pushes very firmly against it for others which, for me, ultimately makes the film somewhat unsuccessful.

Hairspray tells the story of Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), an overweight teen who loves to dance and wants to be on the local (all white) TV dance show for teens, The Corny Collins Show. She is ultimately successful and secures her spot becoming an overnight sensation much to the disgust station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her daughter Amber who is also on the show.

But like most things in America in the 60’s the Corny Collins Show is not racially integrated.They have a monthly ‘negro’ day (their words not mine) which features african american participants but during the performances the dancers (black and white) are partitioned off from one another. Through a series of events Tracy makes friends with the black dance community and inspires them to stand up for their rights and demand integration, all while she is trying to win the ‘Miss Teenage Hairspray’ competition and the heart of teen heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Efron).

There are a couple of other sub plots – Tracy’s white best friend falling in love with one of the african amercian dancers and Tracy’s mother rediscovering herself – but that is pretty much the gist of it. 

Remember … hyper reality!

The film is beautifully staged and produced. The sets and costuming are gorgeous and the singing is top notch from most of the actors (Nikki Blonsky and Queen Latifah take a bow) with many of the songs being very catchy. The one that has stayed in my head is the opening number ‘Good Morning Baltimore’. It has an exuberance about it which makes for a fun welcome into the reality of the film.   

And the dancing … wow! The dancing is just out of this world from everyone. It really cannot be faulted or overstated just how good everyone is and I looked on with deep envy at how well all the actors moved with such confidence and skill. It was very stylized to match the time period and was performed to perfection. 

One of the general themes that I liked was the concept of accepting who you are and valuing yourself no matter what dress size you might be. This was reinforced not just through the character of Tracy but her mother, Edna, as well. The audience is told that big is just as beautiful as small and that extra weight is no impediment to a happy (love filled) and active (dancing) life. 

The other major theme is of course racial equality and integration, which is something everyone should support. It is after all a basic human right – to be treated fairly and equally. I have no issue whatsoever with this, but I am not sure that this particular movie was the best place to try and articulate it.

Let me try to explain.

The fight for racial equality and integration in the United States in the 60’s was a long, serious and complex process that, in truth, is still ongoing. It was steeped in violence, hate, oppression, struggle, self belief and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Innocent people lost their lives – the danger and fear was real.

Putting this fight into a feel good, bubble gum type movie felt quite jarring to me. It couldn’t be given the full justice and attention it deserved without clashing with the overall tone of the film and as a result I was left felt wanting and disappointed, not for me as a viewer but for those who fought and participated in that struggle.

One of the moments that I think best illustrates this is the scene outside the TV studio when there is a clash between the black and white community in the form of the Police. I thought this was treated far too lightly and in a joking fashion. The seriousness of the events and the aftermath would, in reality, have been dire indeed. As I watched it unfold within the movie I was not feeling very comfortable.

Yes … I know … hyper reality. Fantasy. 

But that wasn’t the only moment where I felt uncomfortable.

The african amercian community are portrayed as quite passive and accepting, albeit begrudgingly, of the racial situation. That is until the plucky white heroine enters their world and inspires them to reach for something better. When Tracy suggests to Maybelle Stubbs (Queen Latifah) that they should march on the TV studio, it is written and shot as if this idea had never occurred to Maybelle before. This seemed very unfair and I thought the african american characters deserved much better. It felt like a misrepresentation of that community at that time. 

I don’t want to labour the point too much but I will also add that some of the lyrics I heard made me stop and start. The most obvious one being from ‘Without Love’ which states ‘… But now I’ve tasted chocolate, I’m never going back …’. That’s not the way I would have expressed that sentiment. 

Hyper reality. Hyper reality. Hyper reality.

I was also going to mention the strange and distracting casting of John Travolta as Edna Turnblad but after reading a bit about the movie, I understand that having a male in drag occupying that role is a tradition dating back to the Broadway production and 1988 film. So I’ll let it go.

I guess it’s important to point out that I think the movie had the best of intentions. It was trying to tell a story in a very specific style. I just felt that the genres of a bright, all singing, all dancing musical and a portrayal of the fight for and coming of racial integration didn’t work well together. Perhaps they needed to be two seperate films, two separate musicals. 

Hyper reality. 

Maybe I was missing some satirical comment or perhaps I misread it totally. It’s entirely possible. All I know is that, for me, in 2019 that part of the movie and how it was executed didn’t sit well and the messaging felt wrong. As a result I didn’t enjoy as much as I wanted to. 

Rating: 2 stars

Watched: 20 July 2019

(Header Image: Skitterphoto)

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