Since John Waters' original film about a Baltimore teen craving to be on a tv dance show and standing up for equal rights hit the screen in 1988 it has become a cult classic. The same can be said of nearly every John Waters film, there's just something about the man's style that makes even voyeuristic photographers plucky and likeable in cinemascope.
The original Hairspray included music icons such as Ruth Brown, Sonny Bono, Deborah Harry, Colleen Anne Fitzpatrick aka Vitamin C, Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek; and well known actors Rikki Lake as Tracy Turnblad and Jerry Stiller as Wilbur Turnblad. John Waters himself even made an appearance as Dr. Frederickson. One of the most well-loved actors in the film was Divine who played both Edna Turnblad and Arvine Hodgepile the station manager. Divine's real name was Harris Glen Milstead, and Waters said he had been a Baltimore neighbor of his parents' who only dressed in drag for the over-the-top character. Divine died shortly after the original movie was released, sadly.
The ensemble of musicians playing various characters reflected the music laden film in which black music and black teens were limited to one day a month on a popular teen dance show. The tv show the story revolves around, The Corny Collins show, is a reference to an old Baltimore version of American Bandstand that went by the name of The Buddy Dean Show. The film centered on Tracy Turnblad, a teen who doesn't care that she's an outsider because of her weight and hair-hopping ways. Her hair gets bigger and brighter as her confidence swells and she confidently voices her opinion on integration versus segretation while befriending Seaweed, the son of black leader and music icon Motormouth Mabel.
Give my regards to Broadway
Broadway seems to be out of original ideas these days because they are repeatedly turning to Hollywood for material. In recent years we've seen everything from The Lion King to The Color Purple adapted for theatre, and the raging success of John Waters's 1988 film did not go unnoticed. In 2002 Hairspray the Musical hit the big stage with all new songs written to compliment the adapted story-line. The show won eight Tony Awards including: Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score Written for the Theatre, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical, Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical, Best Costume Design and Best Direction of a Musical.
Hairspray - the musical
Once, twice, three times a lady! ::::Warning - there are spoilers ahead::::
Due to the success of the broadway musical and the nearly twenty years since the release of the first film, it was deemed safe to re-adapt the adaptation for the big screen once more and so we have another version of Hairspray. Gone are the musical icons that populated the cast of the first film, we're left with only Queen Latifah's lackluster filling of Ruth Brown's shoes in the role of Motormouth Mabel and teen newbs such as High School Musical's Zac Efron. Instead of icons we see aging actors populating the cast: Michelle Pfeiffer in Deborah Harry's old role of Velma Von Tussle, John Travolta in a fat suit taking over Divine's portrayal of Edna Turnblad, Christopher Walken in place of Jerry Stiller's Wilbur Turnblad and a young comedian from Nickelodeon Amanda Bynes portraying Tracy's best friend Penny Pingleton. Note that Jerry Stiller is once again in the film, this time as dress maker and shop owner Mr. Pinky, Ricki Lake makes an appearance as one of the talent agents Link Larkin is trying to impress during the dance competition, and despite not wanting to direct the new adaptation, John Waters couldn't stay away and appears as the Flasher in the opening song.
The storyline is basically the same but some things are missing and some things have changed, and these changes have led to less hilarity and fun overall. Instead of vying for the Miss Teen Auto Show the girls are now competing for Miss Teen Hairspray. Rather than being a meddlesome mother trying to relive her youth in her daughter's tv celebrity, Velma Von Tussle is now also working at the television station and has direct influence over the Corny Collins show in a combination of the original character and Mink Stole's role as Tammy. What's more, she has no husband and is quite the slut singing songs about winning 1940 Miss Baltimore Crab through less than honest ways and making references such as "if I was willing to chance communicable diseases, she'll chance jail." Strangley Pfeiffer's opening song sounds strikingly similar to the Poor Unfortunate Souls tune Ursula the Sea Witch sings in The Little Mermaid.
Von Tussle isn't the only one sleezing up the storyline though, Penny Pingleton has been transformed from airheaded best friend suffering from a case of over-protective-controling mom to a leering teen sucking on Blow Pops. The transformation takes place the moment she sets eyes on Seaweed, black teen and son of Motormouth Mabel. You can see the out-of-character leering on the bus sequence and ponder the need for the final, slinky dress "I'm transformed into a hot checker-board-chick" scene that was added.
Other changes include an actual story-line for Edna Turnblad beyond ironing in the apartment or a new dress from Mr. Pinky. Travolta's Edna gets a backstory complete with poor self-esteem and concerns over her attractiveness to her husband. We learn she wasn't always a large and in-charge woman, but used to be quite slender and hasn't left the apartment since all that changed. She has quite strong and sincere feelings for her husband and Travolta actually pulls all of this off despite his rediculous idea of a Baltimore accent and the silly fat suit and wig. In fact, Travolta was one of the better actors in the film and brought much of the silliness that was gutted from the original back. The only thing that seemed somewhat odd was the costume choice for her final appearance, why would a woman shocked by 1960s fashion and only just coming out of her shell choose to don a Tina Turner gold fringe outfit and how would she suddenly know the Tina Turner shuffle? I could be wrong - I generally am - but didn't Tina don the fringe and do the shuffle in the 70s?
For Tracy we see several differences in the storyline. One, she doesn't get the big blonde streak in her hair until she is already on The Corny Collins Show. Not a big deal, just a minor difference. Two, she never meets the strange beatniks, who don't even rate in this version, and so her hair doesn't get ironed but simply goes flat. This sort of irks me because ironing is something that people did to their hair and for a movie about hair styles and acceptance etc. I thought it was a nice inclusion and transition from hair-hopping. Also, rarely does hair with that amount of hairspray laquering it ever fall that flat. And her statement about being okay with the flatness because being a hair-hopper was just another way she was trying to conform... yeah. Better from the beatniks than from her. For gods sakes, couldn't they hire Avril or Alanis or SOMEONE to play the weird beatnik chick? Three, she never goes to jail, which is where she started ironing her hair in the first place, so there are no humorous images of two black women handcuffing themselves to the stodgy white-crust governor in his own home. Pity. They also wiped out the part that took place in Tilted Acres, where blacks were barred from a public park but protested Tracy Turnblad's incarceration anyway. This is one of the many changes that seems to reduce civil rights issues of the day to only that of television integration within the framework of the movie.
Perhaps the most disturbing alteration to the story is the sapping of power from the black characters that takes place. In the original film Motormouth Mabel is more than just a large, popular black woman with a record store, she was a community leader who incited people to march for their rights. In the adaptation she is barely an accessory to the story. Perhaps Queen Latifah's performance would have been more impressive if the role hadn't been diminished. Why was it necessary for the civil rights power, in the form of the very idea to march, to be handed to the white teen? Why did they feel it necessary for Tracy to borrow Seaweed's dance in order to get accepted onto the show? Why did the stereotypical soul food need to make an appearance at all? As if to make up for these slights to the black characters, Link (the hunky beau) decideds to bring Little Arnez, Seaweed's sister, into the dance competition at the end and she wins in the final minutes of the show. Considering the very tiny amount of time she had to garner votes and the mismanagement of earlier votes it's highly unlikely there would have been time..but it's a movie and we must suspend our disbelief.
Overall the movie is okay, but nothing in comparison to the original. Truly Travolta's portrayal of Edna Turnblad and Christopher Walken's jokester Wilbur Turnblad are probably the best parts of the re-adapted adaptation. I wonder if the film made-into-a-musical made-into-a-film will be made-into-a-tv show anytime in the future?