Shakin' All Over...

Hairspray
Director: Adam Shankman // 2007 [Century Promenade 25, Anaheim]
Cinema 4 Rating: 8

I will not lie, and say outright that I was wholly unprepared for how much I shook while watching Hairspray the other night. I don't mean with fear or anger, but from outright dancing in my seat. I don't friggin' dance... and I spent nearly two full hours wiggling in my seat... in a movie theatre... with Jen next to me, who was enjoying the film equally as much as I was, but whose cool resolve hardly allowed her to move while she did so. Going home, with snippets of numerous songs bouncing about the interior of my skull, I continued to tap my feet and fingers. Falling asleep, I was still shaking from the music, rocking myself into slumber. And then, waking up at 3 a.m. to cease the aching of a full bladder, my stumble-bum journey to our room of rest found the blessed wail of Elijah Kelly continuing to resound in my ears.

This does not happen often, even with films that I enjoy greatly, but when the film's credits finished that evening, as we stood up, I told Jen that, "I wouldn't mind one bit if we watched it again RIGHT NOW!" She agreed, saying she just did not want to leave that mood she was feeling: that sincerely buoyant joyousness that one finds so rarely in films these days, or really, ever. It is an elusive thing, this craving to crawl into a movie screen to join the party; so many scenes of this nature seem like, well, so much acting -- they seem to be what they actually are: a put-on. Purely business. In Hairspray, you have a film that actually feels like it is as much of a release for the actors as it is for the characters whom they are portraying. This feeling doesn't come purely from the music. It's about mood and its entirely viral passing from screen to participant.

Yes, I had heard the Broadway cast recording for Hairspray a couple of times, so I knew most of the songs as passing acquaintances, but while the music then seemed fun and some of the lyrics struck me as archly humorous, there is something to be said for actually seeing the show from whence the music came. As much as I love Monty Python, I know that listening to Spam-A-Lot is an entirely different experience from actually taking it in via all of one's senses. Half of the fun is in seeing it performed. Owning the soundtrack to Rocky Horror as a teenager may have prepared me lyrically for when I would eventually first see it onscreen, but it was only part of the experience. Unless you are actually involved in theatre, I imagine it's kind of hard to be a fan of the genre, given that these shows tend to hang out in places like London and Broadway (and now, Vegas) before hitting the road in slightly inferior but usually still worthwhile productions. Until that opportunity presents itself, one has no choice but to take in these shows purely aurally, and often, that is simply not enough to get me to commit to a show. Jen is different from me in that aspect, but she is actually an actress, and like my friends Leif and Ali, she will often memorize entire scores long before she even gets near the show. Of course, they are often doing this with the hopes that eventually they will get the chance to audition for a local production of said show, but there is also flat-out admiration for the music at play here as well. (They ain't memorizin' crap for a show they don't love...) I don't have that need. I have thousands of regular albums to which I may listen; I don't need Broadway as a musical outlet.

Besides, with Hairspray, I was still somewhat skeptical, due to my love for the original earthy John Waters film from 1988. You know, the one that made Ricki Lake a star and turned out to be Divine's last starring role with Waters before his/her death? Yeah, sometimes people forget this stuff. So, here it is, 20 years later, and I am watching Hairspray in a theatre again. But while the earlier film shared this film's yearning soul and earnestness, the 2007 model, outfitted with the shiny girl-group strut of Marc Shaiman's remarkable score, does something that Waters' first try didn't. We have had a couple of graphic designers at my job who both hated it when our boss would tell them that their work "popped." (Apparently, graphic designers hate popping...) Well, to be true to the point and for lack of a better term, this one truly POPS! For all of our advancements in special effects and filmmaking techniques over the years, who would have thought that the way to truly suck an audience into a scene would be to properly stage and film a dance sequence so that the screen rocked with all of the passion of the performers within it.

It was at the tail end of the film that I saw the name Adam Shankman leap onto the screen, first as Director of Choreography and then as the actual director of the film itself. Since then, not really knowing who he was, I have read much in the way of online rips upon Mr. Shankman's personage. As it turns out, he has a rather undistinguished career as a Hollywood helmer, making the likes of The Pacifier, Bringing Down the House, The Wedding Planner, A Walk to Remember and Cheaper By the Dozen 2, none of which I have even come close to seeing. Not being able to comment on his past work, I will ask this: Is it possible, Shankman haters of the internet, that perhaps, as a filmmaker, he simply had not found his niche yet, or had yet to get the chance to direct a film in which he used his chief professional strength: that of a dance choreographer? Not that being a choreographer who directs is always a good thing for a movie musical (though in the cases of Bob Fosse and Stanley Donen, it paid off overall), but I am going to have to admit that Shankman's eye and background in stage dance is probably the chief cause for the success of this film, outside of the already present lyrics and score.

But what about the cast? Strangely, for a film in which there is such a large amount (no pun intended) of publicity over the drag casting of John Travolta, and even though most of the "name" performers acquit themselves admirably in their roles, with the roll of the credits unspooling before me at the film's close, I found these performances figured into my sense of immense pleasure only tangentially. For the most part, this film belongs to the young, and the aforementioned Mr. Kelly, Zac Efron and Nikki Blonsky ruled the school for me. Their pure joy at just being alive within the film was all that I needed to win me over. The film makes me feel, through the haze of satiric nostalgia, that for two hours, this cynically optimistic pessimist is actually in league with the generally culturally misguided youth of this country.

I will point out one exception, and it is purely because numerous reviewers have wringly sought to single him out as a possible miscasting, and that is Christopher Walken. It seems to be felt that because he have grown inured to Mr. Walken's "odd" inflections and line readings, that perhaps he is a detriment to the role. I say that the opposite is the case: I will state that Walken's role of Mr. Turnblad actually becomes the soulful center of the film, and it is partially due to Walken's mannered eccentricities that the role strikes one to be as moving as it is. Walken seems to have grown into this crazy-haired tumbleweed of verbal tics in the collective movie-going consciousness (and some of this is his own fault), but Hairspray is sweet revenge indeed for those who remember how effective he can be in the right role. (Please don't dismiss the fact that he has a background as a dancer, too. Much of the current audience is probably too young to have seen him in the Steve Martin version of Pennies from Heaven, where he did a hilariously threatening striptease.)
This is the right role for him.

And this is, for now, the right movie for me. Yes, it has a weak middle section, but so did the original film, and if there was something Waters' first take was missing, it was even more musical sequences, which this version happily supplies. And, yes, its politics are fairly empty and predictable when thrown under a too-closely focused instrument, but for a musical filled with horny teenagers, its remarkable that the show has any deeper thoughts than "Will she get together with him?" Take it as a good time, and be thankful it tries to say anything at all. No one is going to The Sound of Music for an accurate portrayal of life under the Nazi regime. Sing along with the token songs of protest, hit the streets to march with the kids, and then make sure to get to the studio in time for the big dance show. I made it, and I am still shakin' all over...

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