Who could have predicted that the twisted mind behind some of the grossest images in underground film would also be partly responsible for one of the sunniest movie musicals in decades? Hairspray, based on the hit stage musical that in turn was based on John Waters' loopy 1988 flick, is a delight from start to finish, a valentine as big-hearted -- and big-boned -- as its indefatigable heroine, Tracy Turnblad.
Set in Baltimore during the early 1960s, Hairspray is too rambunctiously good-natured to resist. It's no secret that the salad days of the movie musical are long gone. The few that get made by Hollywood these days -- Rent, The Producers, etc. -- typically come saddled with Broadway-fueled expectations almost impossible to meet. And yet Hairspray stands as tall as a bouffant. Much of the credit must go to the film's Tracy Turnblad, Nikki Blonsky, a then-17-year-old unknown who went from slinging ice cream at a Cold Stone Creamery to movie musical star. From the opening salvo of "Good Morning, Baltimore," which Blonsky belts out by as she flits down city streets, you know you're in good hands.
Stout, spunky and sporting a defiantly puffy do, teenaged Tracy dreams of being on "The Corny Collins Show," a local television program that features fresh-faced white kids rocking out, Pat Boone-style, to the latest dances. Tracy's ample girth doesn't fit the look of the Corny Collins crowd, but her undeniable dancing prowess wins her a spot on the show.
But Tracy is intent on shaking things up off the dance floor, too. She is outraged that the program only features black teenagers once a month on its designated "Negro Day," when Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) takes over deejay duties. Tracy's progressive ideas and skyrocketing popularity earn her the wrath of "The Corny Collins Show"'s reigning princess Amber (Brittany Snow) and Amber's evil mother (a wickedly funny Michelle Pfeiffer). Of course, it doesn't help matters any that Amber's heartthrob boyfriend, Link Larkin (High School Musical's Zac Efron), is smitten by the new girl.
Tracy's newfound stardom has a profound impact on her parents, too. While father Wilbur (Christopher Walken, being Christopher Walken) hawks Tracy paraphernalia in his novelty-joke shop, the biggest change comes for Tracy's plus-sized mother, Edna (John Travolta in a fat suit and several layers of makeup). Edna is an overworked laundress who hasn't left her house in many years, but Tracy's self-confidence and energy inspires her mom to step out into Baltimore and join the Sixties.
Like Tracy, Hairspray radiates good cheer, but it's hardly all sweetness. After all, the movie still contains the DNA of John Waters (who cameos as a flasher), the man who gave the world Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Leslie Dixon's screenplay, based on the play by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan, belies a trace of subversiveness. Tracy only learns about her school's African-American population, including star-in-waiting Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) when she is sent to detention.
The songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are clever, catchy and often hilarious. Highlights abound, from the ebullience of "Welcome to the Sixties" to the show-capping "You Can't Stop the Beat." In a class by itself is "You're Timeless to Me," a sparkling duet where Walken and Travolta strut their stuff.
While the cast members are at the top of their game, Travolta is particularly impressive. In spite of a sometimes glaringly fake Baltmehr accent, he gives shading and depth to a performance that goes beyond the novelty of just a dude in drag.
Moreover, nothing in the résumé of choreographer-turned-director Adam Shankman (Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen 2) foresees the skill and unbridled joy he lavishes on the tale. He finds a perfect cinematic balance that sufficiently "opens" up the movie from its stage origins without losing the charm that made it a smash on Broadway.
In anamorophic widescreen and preserving the theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the print transfer is outstanding. The picture is clean, the color palette vivid, the lines sharp.
A musical had better have solid audio, and Hairspray does not disappoint. Viewers can select Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Surround or DTS-ES 6.1 Discrete Stereo Sound, both of which are first-rate.
Subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
This "special edition" DVD is a generous bounty for fans. Disc One includes two commentaries, with the first one boasting Shankman and Blonsky. The two are rightly enthusiastic, but the gossipy shtick isn't particularly informative; Blonsky was 18 when she did the commentary, and it shows. More substantive is a second commentary with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.
Hairspray Extensions is a great bonus, highlighting six songs for an aggregate running time of 37 minutes, 10 seconds. We get a window into the considerable work that goes into a single number, including dance rehearsal, music recording and multiple takes.
Step by Step: The Dances of Hairspray features two of the movie's assistant choreographers providing instructions for two dance numbers: "Ladies Choice" and "Peyton Place after Midnight ". It's a nice idea, but truly dance-challenged viewers, which include your humble reviewer, are likely to still find this tutorial too advanced for much use. Including a short introduction, the running time for both is 12 minutes, 43 seconds.
The first disc also has a jump to a song feature and sneak peeks.
Kicking things off on Disc Two is an excellent three-part documentary, The Roots of Hairspray. It begins with remembrances of "The Buddy Deane Show," the real-life, Baltimore-based TV show that inspired Waters' creation of Corny Collins. A section on the 1988 Hairspray includes some great anecdotes from that picture's star, Ricki Lake. The once-hefty actor recalls that she began losing weight from all the dance numbers, thereby threatening the film's continuity; crew members resorted to keeping her stocked with Dove bars. The doc concludes with an informative look at the show's genesis on the Great White Way.
Even better is You Can't Stop the Beat: The Long Journey of Hairspray, a one-hour, 18-minute making-of featurette divided in eight chapters. Comprehensive and thoroughly engaging, the documentary includes interviews with the principal cast and crew members.
Five deleted/additional scenes of mild interest clock in at nine minutes, 30 seconds. You can watch each scene separately or choose the "play all" function, with optional commentary by Shankman and Blonsky. The most noteworthy item is a deleted scene of Blonsky performing the song "I Can Wait."
Finally, there is a theatrical trailer and DVD-ROM component.
Hairspray would be a boon even if not loaded with extras. As it is, the movie version of the Broadway hit musical is flat-out fun, with a standout performance by Nikki Blonsky.