Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Big Dreams

DVD Notes: “Hairspray


John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky, in one of the less naturalistic moments of "Hairspray"

Movie musicals go as far back in cinema history as recorded sound does: the very first feature film with a synchronised soundtrack, The Jazz Singer, was a musical, and opened a floodgate to a torrent of musicals, with literally dozens being released in the mainstream cinema every year for the next few decades. This spate abated a little in the 60s, but has never died down, and today we're still being treated to more than a mere trickle in mainstream fare. Just last year, movie musicals released included AnnieThe Book of Life, Get On Up, Into the WoodsJersey BoysLegends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, Muppets Most Wanted, Rio 2, and Sunshine on Leith.

Obviously the genre warrants, indeed requires, a fair degree of stylisation; it would strain most audiences' credulity if actors, playing completely natural characters in a respectably natural environment, were to interrupt their colloquialisms and street-corner philosophies with a pop ballad or tap dance. The exception, obviously, is the entirely naturalistic musical in the mode of Once and Begin Again, where the characters perform songs as part of the story, and the modest songs are not composed as an escape from unadorned reality.

The 2007 film version of Hairspray (adapted from the Broadway show, in turn adapted from an 80s film) is truly stylised, and is clear about it from the opening shot, when a bass and saxophone riff accompany an overhead view of a small urban development, tracking to the headline of a newspaper, announcing the year, squarely in the middle of the JFK administration, the American epoch of willful naivetey. And that credulity finds plenty of space for itself in the film.

The most obviously stylised elements of the film are probably the sets and the hair-dos, in an entirely affectionate parody of 60s television and 60s domesticity. But the most gleeful, and no doubt most memorable are the songs. Marc Shaiman is no Richard Rodgers or Alan Menken, but despite a lack of cleverness or bold imagination in the songs, they're far from bland, and one doesn't pale at the thought of hearing them a second or third time. The most exuberant would be the opening number, "Good Morning, Baltimore," belted out with admirable aplomb and, truthfully, very professional technique by Nikki Blonsky as the rotund and jaunty heroine, Tracy Turnblad. Her hair is ratted up, to the objection of her mother, Edna (John Travolta in drag and a fat suit), who obstinately rejects her defiant daughter's claims that Jackie Kennedy does the same, stubbornly believing that the First Lady's hair "is naturally stiff" - an example of the good-natured humour in Hairspray. But Blonsky brings something attenuating to the style and elation of the film.

Blonsky plays Tracy with an extremely big, extremely warm, extremely innocent, and somewhat artless heart. She means the very best for everyone nice (and the characters are neatly divided into those we like and those we don't); there is no winking irony in her performance, and her tongue firmly holds its position away from her cheek. Travolta is something far quieter, but, I feel, more affecting and more memorable. Unlike Divine, the drag queen who played Edna Turnblad in the 1988 original, Travolta plays her - if you'll allow the expression - straight, that is also sans ironie, but still with style. Both Travolta and Divine mean to be convincing women, but Divine played an unreal, theatrical woman, while Travolta keeps his gestures small, and his voice low, and his eyebrows natural. But his performance is fleshed out with inflection, and his diffident Edna is really, at times, quite moving. He remains a fantastic dancer, and keeps everything inside a very tightly but smoothly controlled sphere in his performance.

Other cast members seem less inclined to depart from the natural here than they have in other performances, but still, a musical generally keeps all that bland naturalism at bay that attends other contemporary earnest films with social messages. Queen Latifah is delightful as always, but her character, when not performing, is unfortunately the one left to preach the film's message. Michelle Pfeiffer was at her very wildest in Tim Burton's Batman Returns, and, while not quite the urban jungle cat we loved there, she manages here to hold on to her allure, despite the narrow plot-serving functions of her character.

The film reaches its high point of earnestness - and, one feels, its low point in vitality - in a mini civil rights march held by the members of the black community of Baltimore, upset by the cancellation of "Negro Day" on the popular "Corny Collins Show". This puts many of them out of work, and deprives the youths of the city of the one day in the month when they could watch and hear anything groovy at all. Many stronger films than this one have been killed by earnestness in proclaiming an obvious liberal message, and I would really rather this film had done without it. Watching the earlier scenes of "Negro Day" and of Tracy in detention or on the bus with her black classmates, I got the sense that these black actors, knowing how difficult it would be for them all to get parts in such a large mainstream fun-loving film again, decided to hammer down all their performances and numbers with the most soulful fervour, which leads to the implicit politics of the film, as opposed to the overt political action taken by the characters. By making the division between black and white performers in the film explicit, Hairspray has already taken on a political tone, and does not need the added blunt device of a protest. The black characters are almost invariably cooler than the white ones, and the covert political statement is that racial separation and inequality is as harmful to culture as it is immoral and abhorrent.

The song "Run and Tell That" captures this political position, and as much as I appreciate Queen Latifah's rendition of "I Know Where I've Been," it should either have been used in an entirely different context, or thrown out. Hairpsray reaches beyond its grasp, and the light-heartedness of this whimsical, nostalgic musical is not enough to support the solemnity of sermonising. Nonetheless, much of the rest of it - in particular, the musical numbers, adorned with the colourful sets and stiff hair-dos - is far too enjoyable to pass up entirely.

Hairspray is available on DVD.

Hairspray is directed by Adam Shankman; written by Leslie Dixon, based on the musical by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan; music by Marc Shaiman; director of photography, Bojan Bazelli; edited by Michael Tronick.

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