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Review: 'Hairspray' rises high

  • Story Highlights
  • "Hairspray" movie musical based on John Waters film
  • Film strikes right tone, contains terrific songs
  • John Travolta is a standout as Edna Turnblad
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By Tom Charity
Special to CNN
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(CNN) -- Nikki Blonsky. The name doesn't exactly sing. It's at least as flat -- and, if you'll pardon the expression, as "ethnic" -- as Tracy Turnblad, the dance-crazy Baltimore teenager Ms. Blonsky plays in "Hairspray."


John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky are outstanding as Edna and Tracy Turnblad in "Hairspray."

But Blonsky does sing, and like this giddy, refreshing movie, her voice rings loud and clear.

Tracy is an outsider who dreams of being with the In crowd, and innocent enough to believe she'll get her chance. And so she does -- this is America, after all. But she's the wrong body shape to get a fair shake from TV producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), and, anyway, as someone cuttingly remarks, "The Corny Collins Show" isn't shot in CinemaScope.

The year is 1962, a period that's as far removed from today's teens as the Jazz Age must have seemed to the generation of proto-rock 'n' rollers that included director John Waters, creator of the original "Hairspray." Even in 1988, when Waters' film hit the screens, "Hairspray" could wax nostalgic for the kitschy days of Kennedy's Camelot as effortlessly as it parodied the bourgeois constraints of the time.

Tongue in cheek and hand on heart, Waters re-imagined the civil rights movement as the struggle to desegregate The Hop. When the movie begins, "Corny Collins" invites African-Americans on the show just once a month -- on "Negro Day." But Tracy -- and her friends, Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) and Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) -- change all that, making the show free for everybody to dance to the music.

Both the revenge of the underdog and the triumph of the understudy, the original "Hairspray" was, as critic Brian Case pointed out, Waters' most hygienic movie. It even bequeathed us Ricki Lake to remember it by.

Revamped and rescored via the Great White Way, "Hairspray" 2007 replaces Gene Pitney, The Five Du-Tones, the Roach and the Madison with Marc Shaiman's inflated Broadway version of bubblegum pop. It may sound like an unfair trade, but Shaiman's energetic score gets closer to the hip, flip and fly of early R&B records than anything in the over-hyped "Dreamgirls." It helps that the kids actually seem to be having fun when they get up and shake their tailfeathers.

At first blush, opening number "Good Morning Baltimore" smacks of schmaltz. But then Tracy misses her school bus and hitches a ride atop a garbage truck. With a wave to the friendly local flasher --a blink-and-you-miss-him cameo from the Pope of Trash himself -- the irrepressible Blonsky signals that everything is going to be all right. No one is taking herself too seriously.

Director Adam Shankman has several cheesy skeletons in his closet ("Cheaper by the Dozen 2," for example) but he was a choreographer first, and it shows. He doesn't overdo the cutting on the dance routines but allows us to sit back and savor the dynamics. It also doesn't hurt that in Kelley, Shankman has discovered a prodigious hoofer of the old school.

And then there's the movie's not-so-secret weapon. It's little short of criminal that John Travolta, who plays Edna Turnblad, hasn't made a musical in a quarter of a century, and if he has to put on a housedress, a wig and a full-body fat suit to get to do this one, then so be it.

It's an outrageous stunt and a mesmerizing performance. Not always for the right reasons, perhaps: Travolta can't sing in his feminine Edna voice, and barely in his own. But still, it works.

One of our most instinctive exhibitionists tries to disappear into the role of an overweight hausfrau too ashamed to venture outside her own backdoor. No wonder Edna's double chin is working overtime. "(You're) Timeless to Me," his duet with screen husband Christopher Walken, is a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.

The movie nearly trips up on its own excitement once or twice, and it's overloaded with talent that it doesn't always put to the best use. It's good to have Michelle Pfeiffer back, but her vamp is never called on to go beyond one note. On the other hand, Queen Latifah is such a significant bonus as Motormouth Maybelle she practically demands her own show.

Bright, campy and wonderfully light, "Hairspray" reminds us that fun comes in all shapes and sizes. It's also one of the few "event" movies this summer that doesn't outstay its welcome. That's worth singing about, no matter what your name is.

"Hairspray" is rated PG and runs 115 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's take, click here. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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