Hairspray: a Review



Last night I saw an advance screening of Hairspray and while I went into the movie with my John Travolta shield at full power expecting the film to be a tired rehash of material I had seen before, I was pleasantly surprised, awakened by its raw energy and enthusiasm. I left the film thinking to myself that if a classic camp movie were to be retold on stage and then translated back to movie format, the newest Hairspray comes very close to the best possible outcome of that scenario. It feels like the logical creative progression to a story we’ve seen many times before.

Edna_turnbladThe plot of the film is familiar to many: overweight girl overcomes fat bias to win a place on early 60’s TV dance show and successfully battles Baltimore’s segregation issues at the same time.

Many of the original film’s lines are intact, including “Penny Pingleton, you are permanently, perenially, punished” (I’m sure I didn’t get that exactly right) and the entire schtick about Edna Turnblad ironing (“My diet pill is wearing off!”).

In fact, when I heard Travolta utter that line from the depths of his fat suit I was sure I was going to hate his portrayal, as Divine cast such a long (and large) shadow in that role. Whereas Divine uttered it as a brash warning to Tracy, Travolta’s line reading is quiet, almost muttered.

So let’s get to Travolta, who is certainly not the main character of the film but the one offered the most pre-show hype because of his transformation. I was trying to forget all the things he has said in press interviews for the film and just let the performance ride on its own. Travolta’s Edna Turnblad is not the stern, commanding camp presence that Divine offered up, but at first a sort of strangely meek recluse who speaks in muted tones in an affected Baltimore accent.

With Divine, the breasts and the fat jiggling from the arms and the gaudy make-up was really in your face and with Travolta it’s as if a fat suit has swallowed the Scientologist and all that remains of the actor himself are those familiar beady eyes staring out from a sea of plump, white seamless dough.

EfronTravolta grows on you however, and his character really comes into her own when Edna dances, putting all that fake flesh into motion. It’s then that the audience erupts into laughter, and the moment didn’t happen nearly often enough. Edna Turnblad’s voice is also strangely inconsistent, veering from the affected Baltimore accent back to Travolta’s voice, in and out of character, again and again. I never forgot that it was John Travolta inside that fat suit, but his portrayal did win me over as the movie went on.

Also, gone is the seedy Baltimore that John Waters gave us, replaced by a freshly-rinsed happy-go-lucky Hollywood musical version. Waters’ dark, twisted camp sensibilities have vanished, though his presence is still felt (once quite literally). The city here is crisp and colorful while Waters’ Baltimore has always been dusted in a shadowy layer of thrift store grunge.

Hairspray3It’s obvious that director Adam Shankman began his career in Hollywood as a choreographer, for the movie moves along at a dancer’s pace. My boyfriend noted that he thought that the performances were not very well directed but the movement and pace of the story more than made up for it at the end.

Hairspray‘s diverse cast is its best asset.

“Discovery” Nikki Blonsky (Tracy Turnblad), who came, literally, from behind a counter at a Cold Stone Creamery and was plucked for the role from open casting auditions, has made herself a name to be reckoned with, even though her performance does not stray much from the character that Ricki Lake originated way back when.

Christopher Walken (Wilbur Turnblad) gives a quiet, endearing performance as Tracy’s father and gag joke/novelty shop owner. Michelle Pfeiffer and Brittany Snow (Velma and Amber von Tussle) provide cartoonish, villainous foils to the film’s themes of tolerance and integration. And James Marsden and Zac Efron twinkle as the squeaky clean leading men.

Queen Latifah is a commanding presence as Motormouth Maybelle. The movie actually strays from its two-dimensional cartoonlike box for a moment and reaches another, more emotional place altogether when she takes to the streets in a protest for integration, singing the gospel-tinged track “I Know Where I’ve Been”.

Hairspray4_2And I won’t soon forget Allison Janney as the uptight Christian bigot mom shouting “devil child” as she tosses holy water at her daughter Penny Pingleton, whom she’s imprisoned in her bedroom. Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) is a standout and gives perhaps the best vocal performance of the film as Penny’s (Amanda Bynes) “checkerboard” love interest. Bynes is perfect as the blinking airhead Penny. And Jerry Stiller is a great bonus as plus-size dressmaker Mr. Pinky.

The only real disappointment in the cast, because she didn’t live up to the hype that the script built for her, was Little Inez (Taylor Parks), whose turn as Corny Collins’ new, young dancing discovery wasn’t dazzling enough to fill the plot that had been constructed.

And we’re also treated to a few cameos, which I’ll leave as a surprise.

Overall, I’d recommend Hairspray. It’s an optimistic piece of filmmaking and a worthy summer diversion. I think it’s particularly difficult to come at a piece of well-loved material and try to give it a fresh perspective. And they’ve succeeded here.

Hairspray hits theaters on July 20th.

You may have missed…
Drag Not Really a Drag for Travolta in Hairspray [tr]
Trick or Treat: More John Travolta as Edna Turnblad [tr]
John Travolta’s New Look [tr]


  1. Frank L says

    From the “Hairspray” trailer it looks as though Travolta is doing a full-on appropriation of Dustin Hoffman’s Dorothy Michaels character from “Tootsie.” Maybe Hoffman could go after Travolta for infringement.

  2. Rey says

    The “already done” crowd is getting a bit tiresome. It’s not a remake in the vein of Van Sant’s _Psycho_ – how many of you thought that when you went to see the recent _Chicago_?

    That being said, I haven’t been thrilled about this movie mostly because I’m a huge John Waters fan and a big anti-Travolta person. However, it’s not like he’s Mel Gibson.

    I’m reading Andy’s review as very honest and objective which I really appreciate. I will actually give this flick a chance. If I hate it, I’ll just pop in the original non-musical film. And then follow it up with some _Female Trouble_ for good measure.

  3. 24play says

    July? Transformers Month?

    I thought it was just a brief 31 days in The Summer of The Simpsons.

  4. LightningLad says

    Of course Andy gives it a positive review. Watch for the Hairspray advertising to show up on Towleroad over the next few weeks.

  5. Jason says

    I agree REY, the “already done” and ““I won’t even give it a chance” card is really old. Everyone needs to lighten up and have some fun with this film. Will Travolta live up to Divine? – NO. Does he have to? – NO. This isn’t a remake of the original film and no one ever said it was so let the cast portray the characters in a new way. This is a Hairspray for a new generation and in my opinion – will be a FORCE to reckon with come July 20. I dare anyone to go see the film and then honestly say they didn’t have a great time. If we have learned one thing from the plump little Turnblad (whether it was Ricky, Marissa or Nikki) it’s to give everyone and everything a fair chance!

  6. gray says

    Most likely the Hairspray ads would show up anyway, given this blog’s traffic and its demographic. That makes sense.

    I thought the review was balanced.

  7. CF says

    This is ridiculous.

    A remake of a movie (or is it a remake of the broadway play which was a spin off of the original movie?) of a movie that is is pathetic, unoriginal, unnecessary, and boring.

  8. says

    Soulbrotha, I had it ready to post but it was removed from YouTube before I could. I’ll include it in my next update.

  9. says

    the original Hairspray was one of Waters’ worst… and i don’t mean in a good way.
    this cover version of the Broadway version barely seems a rental.

  10. David says

    Andy, thenks for the review. I too have been very reluctant to see it but maybe I’ll give it a chance. The only issue I have with your review is that you seem to be comparing it to the original movie — the stage musical is MUCH different in spirit and in performances from the original movie. If you are comparing anything to this movie it should be the Broadway production and not the original Waters film.

  11. says

    David, I hear you. Unfortunately I haven’t seen the Broadway production, so I apologize. The movie does note, however, that it is based on both the earlier film version and the stage production.

  12. Darren says

    Lightning Lad,

    I would expect less inflammatory talk from a Legionnaire that had been dead, replaced by his transexual twin sister, resurrected from a protoplasmic organism, only to have his arm eaten off replaced with a robotic one instead, finding his older brother wants him dead, having a nervous breakdown when his wife and his sister’s lover are caught in each other’s arms, and to have one of his kids turned into the living killing machine known as Validus..

    I really wouldn’t throw stones.. 😉

    Long Live the Legion!

  13. Will says

    Thanks Andy. I too have my reservations (because of Travolta), however, given that you had so many reservations as well, and still liked it, I’m sure this will be fun summer fare. It’s a great campy story of the underdog overcoming obstacles with great tunes. Given how hard movie musicals are, I think your review has convinced me to catch it this summer. We’ll let Germany and other groups ban Scientologists.
    Gay writers, producers, and musicians are involved in this. I think I can manage to get over Travolta.

  14. Awesome David says


    24PLAY! You’re right. I completely blanked on the Summer of the Simpsons. Ok, ok, ok.

    How about you give me a few days of Transformers, and then I promise the Simpsons can have the rest? I need robots in disguise.


    Oh yeah, IhateHairspraygoawaystupidmusical.

  15. BostonBear says

    Darren: BAR HAR HAR HAR!!! Nice to know I’m not the only comic geek that comes by here.

  16. mark m says

    Awesome David, you can have as many Transformers days as you want and I’ll share them with you.

    Unless Travolta turns into a jeep or a volkswagon or a helicopter, I’m not interested.

  17. Jeremy says

    I’ve seen the film twice already and, while it will never take the place of the original film, this version is better than fans might expect. And I agree with Andy that Elijah Green is the vocal standout. He’s a very charismatic newcomer.

  18. Super Awesome David says


    Badass. I broke out all my toys in anticipation.

    Mark M, we should have a play-date prior to the movie release. I’ll have my mom call yours.

  19. Rey says

    F. me? Go fvck yourself, Shane. You appear to have misinterpreted my comment as an invitation to be a little bitch.

    Do you as a blanket rule not go to see any remakes? Is that what you’re trying to say? Or do you simply have too much time off this summer and just feel like being catty and spreading your negative energy across the miles?

    Besides, _Hairspray_, the original movie on which the Broadway musical was based, was released more than 10 years ago – next year it will be 20.

    I’m not generally a fan of remakes of most sorts, but I don’t close myself off to them completely. I can’t imagine living in a world that didn’t have a remake of the 1934 _Imitation of Life_, por ejemplo.

  20. basis4insanity says

    Rey, you have a point. Ignoring Imitation of Life remakes would be Sirking your cinematic responsibilities…

    And the rest of you keep it down. I’m trying to iron in here.

  21. Daniel says

    I’ll be there opening weekend. I loved the original movie and thought the Broadway show was a lot of fun. Besides I LOVE MUSICALS and even go see the bad ones. I saw Xanadu when it opened, I saw Can’t Stop The Music when it opened. I did, however, draw the line at that Kelly Clarkson, Justin Guarini movie.

  22. says

    Seems John Travolta is just channeling the stage performance of Harvey Fierstein (who really should have been asked to take the role, btw). It’s a real pity that no one from the acclaimed original Broadway cast are in the movie version.

  23. Randalf says

    So many emotions, my goodness. It is just a musical after all, meant to be fun, and in this case a bit camp. Harvey would have been fun but his voice causes people to run screaming from the theatre. I thought Andy’s review was great – lighten up homos and go see it.

  24. tufe says

    John Travolta and his religion don’t seem to like homosexuals. …and I don’t like him. I will never see this movie. It sickens me that he was actually cast.

  25. Mel says

    Guys – I (vaguely) remember the original Hairspray when I was a lot, lot younger in Queensland, Australia (think Alabama with coral). My best friend at school was a huge Divine fan, and I ended up seeing it. Please don’t NOT see this movie because of Travolta – treat Scientology with the contempt it deserves. It’s fabulous!! Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelley, there are so many wonderful performances, this is worth a viewing. I’ve seen it with my Japanese partner twice. Just love it for the joy o0f life it shows.