Wish I had been cast in the Christopher Walken role. What a blast it is to watch him dance with Travolta as an overweight 1960s Baltimore housewife, or watch Walken attempt to be funny and still come out creepy as always.
The movie has its flaws, but overall it’s great entertainment. The thing Travolta has always done best is let us see his enjoyment at being up there on screen. When he doesn’t do that, the films usually flop.
Back in the 1980s, my oldest boy Miles, performing with his junior high (or “middle school” as they’re called now) chorus in Santa Monica, surprised me with a solo on “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”—because he knew OKLAHOMA was one of my favorite musicals, he told me later.
He was such a success with the audience, I couldn’t stop gushing about it aftterwards. But with his usual modesty, he diverted my attention from him to a classmate, built much like the slightly older star of HAIRSPRAY—the seventeen-year-old Nikki Blonsky—only Hispanic, and with a more operatic voice, who, he said, was very nervous before the show, but he told her “People just want to see you having fun on stage, then that makes them have fun” or words to that effect, and I remember thinking, how fucking insightful.
And in HAIRSPRAY, even creepy Walken is obviously having fun, as is Michelle Pfeiffer playing an aging beauty queen (and channeling Sharon Stone somewhat), and Queen Latifah (channeling Pearl Bailey a little) which I would credit the director with, but it was Travolta who held out for their hiring and whose enthusiasm and commitment seem to have influenced them (I would guess, having been around movie sets for a few decades and watching these things transpire).
But the real find of the flick, as several critics have already pointed out, is a charismatic young actor-singer-dancer discovery, Elijah Kelley, who, as the leader of the black kids and creator of new dances, consumes the screen when he is on it.
The story is he wasn’t a dancer before two months of rehearsals, but now he’s the hottest screen dancer since the young Travolta made his dancing debut in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and Kelley can sing and act too, better than almost anyone out there right now. And he’s incredibly handsome.
Equally talented was Zac Efron, the kid who plays the white heart throb Clint—who my nine-year-old informed me was one of the stars of the unbelievably successful Disney TV movie musical, HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL. He can sing and dance and act incredibly well too.
Hopefully, the success of these two musicals bodes well for more musicals hitting the screen. One of my most embarrassing indulgences when I was young and trying to be a real tough guy, was how much I loved musicals, which, back then, could be pretty tough themselves at times, though there was no defending the sudden outbursts of song and dance even if it was Sinatra or Brando or some other alleged tough guy attempting it.
But the Hollywood musical is such a great “American” innnovation, it would be well worth reviving the genre as not just a once every few years event, but as a regular feature at movie complexes around the country.
The one thing that made it possible for me to indulge my love of musicals as a young man, was that all the great jazz musicians would do their versions of the tunes that came out of the better Broadway and movie musicals of that time. Even these cool cats could dig the beauty and power of great show tunes.
Not that HAIRSPRAY has songs as good as the great shows of the distant past, but it's still an enjoyable experience. Does it make integration look like it came pretty easily? Yep. Does it also, as almost always in Hollywood’s version of history, make it seem that overthrowing segregation was inspired by a white person rather than courageous blacks who had been fighting for decades, even centuries, before 1962, the time the movie is set in? Yep.
So it doesn’t work as history, the way say DREAMGIRLS often does. But as entertainment, HAIRSPRAY mostly succeeds.
My one quibble, besides the oversimplified and whitewashed history lesson inherent in it, and the miscasting of Walken instead of me (just kidding) (barely) was the under use of Amanda Bynes. I’ve known her child TV persona for years, from my little boy watching kid shows. She’s been one of the most accomplished comediennes, as well as actresses, I’ve ever seen, old or young, since she was nine or so. On TV she originated many of the ideas for skits she did in her pre-teen version of the Carol Burnett show, many of which were as funny as the original, or more so.
Now fully grown and a knockout, she plays her scenes in HAIRSPRAY with her usual panache, but could have been used to much greater effect if given the chance. I look forward to her getting a starring adult role in a film that puts her beauty and screen charisma, as well as comic chops, to better use.