In a time when wizards and superheroes are clogging up the box-office lines this summer, New Line Cinema has come to the rescue injecting theaters with the most upbeat and colorfully fantastic film, by way of Broadway, with "Hairspray," opening July 20.
Complete with an all-star cast, nonstop rhythm and strong social commentary, this latest offering, from producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, is another nearly perfectly crafted spin on a stage musical, as they recently delivered with the Oscar winning "Chicago." Yet, the biggest treat to come out of "Hairspray" is its newest leading lady, Nikki Blonsky, who dons a wild wig and struts her stuff, often stealing the spotlight from co-stars like John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer and Queen Latifah, which is no small feat.
The story of "Hairspray," dating back to a 1988 John Waters camp fest, tells of a racially divided Baltimore during the turbulent '60s, as an overweight girl named Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky) becomes determined to land a spot dancing on the "American Bandstand" like afternoon television program, "The Corny Collins Show." As Tracy soon discovers, her black friends are not welcomed to dance with the all-white ensemble of cheeky teens, rather they are relegated to wait for "Negro Day" once a month. Not one to take rejection lightly, as her overweight albeit white character is also turned away, Tracy, and her somewhat oblivious sidekick Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) crusade with the minority community, led by Motormouth Maybelle (Latifah), to desegregate the airwaves.
As with any project based on John Waters' humor, there are many hilarious jokes and themes throughout, though the overall look and feel to this latest adaptation sticks closer to the Broadway show, which took New York audiences by storm in 2002, thanks mostly to the musical duo of composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman. Their energizing sound translates perfectly to the big screen.
Blonsky packs a powerful punch for such a newcomer to Hollywood, which following the success of "Dreamgirls" star Jennifer Hudson, goes to prove there are certainly diamonds still left to be found in the rough. As Tracy, this New York native builds on the success laid before her, thanks to previous turns in the role from Ricky Lake in the original film and Marissa Jaret Winokur from Broadway. Yet Blonsky finds a way to make it her own, cheerfully singing one musical number after another, at one point on top of a garbage truck on her way to high school.
The other big aspect to "Hairspray," is John Travolta, who straps on a fat suit and feminine mystique to play Tracy's shy mother, Edna Turnblad. Having acted in arguably the most successful movie musical of all time, "Grease," the producers originally tried getting him to play in "Chicago." They should be commended for taking a gamble with looking to cast Travolta in "Hairspray," but unfortunately, not all bets pay off, and in this film, the megastar stumbles, rather poorly at times. With an absurdly annoying accent and underwhelming presence, Travolta gets lost under all that makeup and ultimately becomes the only sour note of the movie. Luckily, there is far too much great stuff going on to be brought down by one weak player.