HAIRSPRAY, Bialystock and Bloom

A couple of years since it hit the cinemas, the musical film version of Hairspray is still a great deal of fun. While the film isn’t perfect, it provides a mostly enjoyable couple of hours in front of the TV. I still don’t really miss anything from the original film and, in fact, though the two are vastly different in tone, I enjoy the remake much more.

That doesn’t mean it’s not wanting. For me, there are still a few things that don’t work:

  • Losing “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” was a mistake. The characters of Penny and her mother and their relationship are all sacrificed to some extent, as are (to a lesser extent, those of Velma and Amber. The character stuff is never really reclaimed although there is an attempt to get the dynamic of the former relationship in the dialogue and of the latter pair in the reworked “Miss Baltimore Crabs”. But neither attempt is successful in the way that the lost song is.
  • Amanda Bynes as Penny is still the weak link in the cast for me. Her transformation from nervous geek to checkerboard chick just doesn’t have enough of an arc. A large part of this is in the delivery; it is also because she has less material to make her character work successfully than she could/should have had.
  • What was with the rewrite on “Big, Blonde and Beautiful”? It turns a song that was about identity and character into a song that’s about food.
  • I have a problem with Tracy running away from the march. It seemed out of character to me.
  • I wasn’t convinced by the changes in the narrative in the last third of the film, after the march. I think the thread of the love story between Link and Tracy was a little out of focus and the right balance between the love story and the civil rights story (which I found incredibly moving) wasn’t quite achieved.

I thought the film was well cast, with almost everyone delivering great performances. Nikki Blonsky hits exactly the right notes as Tracy and the risk of casting Travolta paid off really well – I think he was great as Edna. I particularly enjoyed their scenes together as their relationship developed throughout the film. Christopher Walken was phenomenal as Wilbur in a flawless performance, as is Queen Latifah, who delivers her two and a half numbers with great flair and gusto. Brittany Snow’s Amber also suffered from the rewrites, but she is solid throughout. Zac Efron, as Link, is great and gives a far better performance than his after his bland turn in High School Musical – it’s great to see what he can do with some good material. Elijah Snow is also fantastic as Seaweed.

One of the big criticisms of the film when it was released was the “traffic officer” style of direction. I agree that there is less directer-driven character work than there could be, but I don’t think that it’s completely destructive by any means. I enjoyed Adam Shankman’s choreography and I think it was stylishly filmed too. I think that, as a choreographer-cum-director, Shankman did a serviceable job. It served the material and while it doesn’t perhaps give the film as much life (as opposed to vibrancy) as it could, it certainly didn’t get in the way of things too much.

I think it succeeded in this aspect where The Producers (and Susan Stromin) failed miserably. One specific thing that sprang to mind when I left the cinema was how “Timeless to Me” – one of my favourite parts of the film – is the kind of stylistic throwback that the film remake of The Producers was going for and just didn’t achieve again and again and again. I also think that Shankman and his team remembered to give Hairspray a heart, something that I’ve found lacking in The Producers.

Does The Producers need a heart? I don’t know – maybe not – but the film as it is bores me to tears. When you put the two side by side, I don’t think really The Producers holds a candle to Hairspray. I found The Producers entertaining the first time round but I find it doesn’t engage me for longer than any other old stereotypical joke or gag. While Hairspray also deals with pastiche, it has style, character and is characterful – three things that I think prevent The Producers from being really memorable – at least, for me.

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