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#723 - HAIRSPRAY


Prologue: How to watch a Musical

There are two points that come early on when you are watch a movie-musical. The first is when—out of the blue—something completely off the wall and bizarre seems to just happen for no reason. In MOULIN ROUGE, for example, Christian is sitting at his typewriter, writing the story (of what would be Moulin Rouge), while narrating to us, and he says, “Suddenly, an unconscious Argentinean fell through my roof.” Immediately after that, an unconscious Argentinean falls through the roof, and Christian’s narration deadpans, “He was quickly followed by a dwarf dressed as a nun.” This too happens, and the group of them go on to try and figure out what the hills are alive with. (Ideas they come up with: “the hills are vital intoning the descant”1 and “the hills are incarnate with symphonic melodies.”)

1 I had to look it up, too. It means a melody sung above the tenor line.

Though the movie takes place in 1899 (not the 1960s), we know where this is going, and are unsurprised when Christian cuts through all the clatter with a loud, “the hills are alive….with the sound of music!” It is a very funny moment, but also bizarre, and clearly artificial, setting the characters up to sing their own rendition of the Julie Andrews classic.

The second moment comes a few minutes after the first. You sit there watching, half horrified, half transfixed, as the movie gets weirder and weirder. People are singing. People are dancing. None of them appear to be gay. What on earth is going on? It is usually at that point that a completely gratuitous on purpose in your face over the top moment will occur, leaving you to (quickly) decide: “Am I in or am I out?”

Returning to our MOULIN ROUGE example, for me that moment was in the Can-Can, when not only did a large group of Victorian-age well dressed characters suddenly start dancing like Christina Aguilera on Speed (and we’re talking Skanky Dirrrrrrty Christina, not cleaned up married and pregnant “how did she pull off that transformation?” Christina), and to top off matters, the dancers were blithely singing their own whispery psychotic version of Smells Like Teen Spirit!2

2 Smells Like Teen Spirit was a fine choice, but personally I would have preferred something from Slaughter, or possibly Ratt.

To fans of the Musical genre, none of what I have just said causes you to blink. You love Musicals, both live and in films, and for all I know you have the soundtracks, both of the stage and the screen.3

3 In which case you are a super-nerd, and should come with warning labels.

You are the folks who do not need to be told anything. But most of us—even those of us who can appreciate a well-made movie-musical—are not comfortable watching people singing for no apparent reason.

The idea that a movie fan has trouble with singing might seem strange at first glance. After all, we readily watch movies with: completely unrealistic fight scenes, gun battles where no one gets hit, children who are articulate and always have one-liners to spout, the laws of physics murdered with any and every car (or bus) jump, coincidences so stacked up that you strain something rolling your eyes, and with love scenes that happen after both partners wake up AND BEFORE ANYONE HAS HAD A CHANCE TO PEE!

You see what I am saying. We put up with an assortment of implausible ideas on screen without batting an eye. Somehow, we are able to assimilate that into our regular experience, understand it is just a movie and not worry about it. But when it comes to people breaking out in song, it just feels weird!

Here’s the thing: Musicals are like any other genre. Some are bad. Some are good, and some are fantastic. If you are a fan of great movies, there are some Musicals you should see, and you would definitely enjoy. However, you need to understand what you are getting into. There is no reason you cannot enjoy a musical. After all, you play the radio in the car, right? And sometimes, when no one else is around, you like to sing along? Exactly. Briefly, let me give you some rules to enjoying Musical Movie:

1) There are two main types of Musicals; the comedy and the drama, but neither one is taking itself completely seriously. Whether it’s GREASE or SOUND OF MUSIC, you’re supposed to realize these people are big nerds for singing all the time. Laugh at them. It’s okay.4

4 Note: DO NOT do this if you are invited over to a girl’s house to watch her favorite musical (say: GREASE), and she happens to think it’s completely serious. She will not appreciate your good humor, and think you are laughing at her, and god help you then.

2) Much like when a Wilson Phillips song comes on, you don’t want to tap your foot, but it’s okay to do that too. They all are enjoying themselves. Think of it more as a concert than a movie. (It may help if you drink.)

3) Every problem seems pretty simple in a Musical, with an equally simple solution. This is because the characters are spending most of their time singing and dancing, and cannot be weighed down with complexities. That’s okay. Do not fret that the nuances are not picked up on, but feel free to add funny little comments along the way. Think of it as viewer participation.

4) Just because you enjoy singing along does not make you gay. However, just to be safe, see all Musicals with at least one girl, and frequently kiss her during the movie, so everyone there will have no doubt how manly you are.

5) Most importantly: whatever problems the people in the movie have, they will make it seem life and death. That’s okay. They are drama queens. What you are looking for is how pretentious they are about such things. If you feel “preached” to or talked down to, you are in a bad Musical Movie, and feel free to walk out and go mosh something.

Hopefully, these simple rules will help you enjoy the Movie Musical more. And now, on to HAIRSPRAY.

Movie-Hype #723 – HAIRSPRAY

Let me say up front that I have not seen the live musical HAIRSPRAY is based on, nor the (non-musical) movie by John Waters that musical came from. The many cameos and in-jokes meant nothing to me. I cannot compare the songs or performances here to what came before, and I do not want to. You fans can figure out on your own whether you would want to see the movie. I am reviewing the movie for people who have never seen any of it, and are probably a little suspicious.

The story (and I’m compressing) is as follows: Tracy is a white teenager in Baltimore. She is—as Kramer would put it—a full-figured gal, and fairly short on top of tha, but she doesn’t seem to let that get her down. Tracy’s (as well as every other teenager in the city) obsession is The Corny Collins Show, sort of a local version of American Bandstand that apparently every large city had back in the day. Tracy’s goal in life is to dance on The Corny Collins Show, which usually only picks the stereotypical good-looking people. Picking up some moves from local black kids (who can’t ever stop singing or dancing, so much so they are thrown in detention, where Tracy meets them), Tracy comes to be on the show, only to find out that her black friends are not allowed on. (Except for once a month, which I will get to in a minute.) This is a problem for Tracy. Tracy also has a mother named Edna who is a tad more full-figured than Tracy could ever hope to be, and who hasn’t left the house in ten years.

I have left out the “boy likes girl” “girl likes boy” “evil mother of the evil girl who runs the show” angles, but you get the gist of it. To recap:

A) Tracy Likes to Dance

B) Edna is too big for pants

C) Black folk are not given a chance

If I have irritated you by reducing these serious problems to three bullet points (that rhyme!), it is because the movie does this too. Remember what I said above: they do not make things complicated. Tracy appears to have a weight problem (or at least a poorly inherited metabolism), but she does not feel bad about herself, so it is no big deal. This is at the same time both a completely refreshing and completely unrealistic way to deal with teen weight issues.

Another example: Tracy wants everyone (white and black) to just dance and get along,5 which sounds neat-mosquito, but also: makes light of the suffering black people went through to actually get equal rights, reduces the problems of integration with a wave of a hand (or a shake of the foot), not to mention using some ugly stereotyping to boot.

5 Sort of a “Rodney King meets DDR” kind of party, and I am not putting a note on DDR, so you will just have to look it up.

I watched HAIRSPRAY in the theatre a day after finishing Season 3 of The Wire, a show about race in Baltimore. Part of me was almost offended by how easy HAIRSPRAY made everything seem. I even said (half-joking) as the credits rolled, “and Baltimore was never troubled by racial strife again.” And before you call me a spoil sport and send me hate mail, ask yourself, “Am I white?” If you checked yes in that box, cram it with walnuts, ugly.6 I don’t want to hear it.

6 Homer Simpson says this, when at first he doesn’t get the role of Poochy in the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons.

I mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: the weight thing bothered me too. In an era where teenage girls all seem to have dysmorphia, I am a little uncomfortable just blithely ignoring the implications.7

7 Further making me scared: I was in the theatre with four enormous women. I actually made up names for them, which I have now forgotten. Trust me: they were funny. Anyway, the point is: there are a lot of fat jokes that are funny, but at first I didn’t want to laugh: fearful the ladies would eat me. [EDITOR'S NOTE: I JUST REMEMERED ONE OF THE NAMES: THE MIRTHY GIRTHIES]

Okay, everything I just wrote above is completely true and I stand by it, but ignore all of it now that you’ve read it. (I know: things I should have mentioned three paragraphs earlier.) Why should you ignore it? Because it’s not what this movie is about. A movie is about one thing, and solving serious problems is not Hairspray. All they are trying to do is make a fun musical with an unrealistic idealistic message: wouldn’t life be simpler if we could just dance?

That’s it. They are not trying to address teen obesity, or (and this is strange, given that it is the movie’s plot) the problems of integration, both now and then. They are just making a fun movie with music.

And HAIRSPRAY is a fun movie. Very fun. Let me repeat that: HAIRSPRAY IS TONS OF FUN, YES PUN INTENDED.

Up above I told you there are two points in every musical. The first for me in HAIRSPRAY is when Tracy starts singing on top of a garbage truck. You have to see it to believe it. It was at that point that I wasn’t sure I could hang.

The second moment happened when we first see The Corny Collins show on TV and everyone is dancing around like crazy, and, well, here are some of the lyrics from “The Nicest Kids in Town.”

Every afternoon
You turn your T.V. on
(na, na, na, na, na, na-na-na-na)

And we know you turn the sound up
When your parents are gone, yeah
(na, na, na, na, na, na-na-na-na)

And then you twist and shout
For your favorite star
And once you've practiced every step
That's in your repertoire
You better come on down
And meet the nicest kids in town

Nice white kids
Who like to lead the way
And once a month
We have our "negro day!"
And i'm the man who keeps it spinnin' round
Mr. Corny Collins
With the latest, greatest Baltimore sound!!

Hyperion’s Rating Guide

Suspension of Disbelief Index: 10 (out of 10). Nothing here is real or should be taken as such. They didn’t even film it in Baltimore.

Genre Grade: Obviously we’re talking about a Musical. Musicals usually don’t make it to the screen unless they have strong material, so this is a tougher field to crack. HAIRSPRAY is good, but nowhere near as good as the truly great ones. We’ll call it C+/B-. (Remember: that’s only judging the film in the genre of Musicals itself.)

Sex/Violence? There is some sexual innuendo, but most of it is never really winked at, and has to be inferred. Still, I would think 10-12 would be fine. Younger ones won’t catch the undercurrent, and truly: there’s not that much.

What about the Music? Fun, fast and instantly forgettable. I couldn’t remember the songs five minutes after leaving the theatre, whereas last year I saw this awful musical (I refuse to even print its name), and I STILL hear those songs in my head. But it’s not a bad thing that I can’t remember the songs: I totally enjoyed hearing them.

Pantheon Percentile: HAIRSPRAY is one of those strange cases where it holds up higher in the Pantheon than in its genre, because of what I alluded to: musicals tend to be strong on film. Then again, this is total fluff. So we’ll call it a hearty 73.

Did you catch that? When I heard that I got it. The movie wasn’t taking itself seriously, wasn’t really trying to be a social commentary on anything. It was just a movie trying to make you laugh. And it did. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed.

The dialogue is fast and furious and full of self-referential material like above. If you’re watching on DVD you might even want the captions (and also so you can sing along).

The performances:

Good:
a
Tracy Turnblad(Nikki Blonsky) - She sings her heart out, and does just fine.

Tracy’s Dad (Christopher Walken) – the man can dance, and always has that twinkle in his eye

Corny Collins (James Marsden) – Seems to get the would-be Dick Clark role, and also doesn’t take himself seriously

Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) – She plays Tracy’s best friend, a budding sexpot who doesn’t seem to realize that every move she makes screams out a word I can’t even print here. (Initials are C.G. if you’re interested.8) Of course, she happens to be Black Man’s kryptonite, as every brother who appears in screen seems to want to jump her bones. In spite of the Mandingo imagery going on, Amanda Bynes sells the role well.

8 Yeah, right: like I’m going to tell you.

Penny’s Mom Prudy (Allison Janney) – There is no way to describe her performance, other than to say she’s the funniest character in the movie, and steals every scene she’s in.

Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) – At first it looked like Queen Latifah was embarrassed to be in a movie so awash in stereotypes, but that was probably just me projecting. Either way, she turns in another “strong black woman” performance she has become known for. I like her in pretty much everything.

Not Good:

Edna Turnblad (John Travolta) – I guess it’s tradition to have Tracy’s mom played by a guy in a fat suit, but I don’t get it. As a new viewer I can only judge by what I saw, and it just seemed tacky. Much is made about Travolta’s “fat suit” and makeup, but never for an instant did I think Edna was anything other than John Travolta in a fat suit. Yes, I get it: he used to be this big dance guy in the ‘70s, but that doesn’t justify the part to me. Just a huge distraction and it totally didn’t work. (Virtually every review leads off with Travolta’s role in the movie, which should be a sign of my indifference that I didn’t even mention it until now.)

Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) – While much is made about how you supposedly cannot recognize Travolta, honest to gods I did not recognize Michelle Pfeiffer! I don’t know if it was the makeup or just how much she’s aged, but I remember seeing her and thinking, “Man, she looks like Michelle Pfeiffer, twenty years from now.” This performance doesn’t work for me either.

I know it might seem odd to so highly recommend a movie I have said so much negative about, but I did that more because of the issues themselves. Truly: HAIRSPRAY is a much fun movie. It’s two tons of fun, and that’s just the characters! (Zing!) The whole point of writing this review today (rather than when I saw the film in the theatre) is to give you movie ideas for the Thanksgiving weekend. I promise you: your family will love this film. You can make fun of it. You can argue about it. You can open up discussions about race or weight. You can sing and dance. You can argue about whether Travolta looks good or now, and most of all you can find something that the entire family can do for two hours without killing each other.

How can you go wrong?

NOTES
1 I had to look it up, too. It means a melody sung above the tenor line.
2 Smells Like Teen Spirit was a fine choice, but personally I would have preferred something from Slaughter, or possibly Ratt.
3 In which case you are a super-nerd, and should come with warning labels.
4 Note: DO NOT do this if you are invited over to a girl’s house to watch her favorite musical (say: GREASE), and she happens to think it’s completely serious. She will not appreciate your good humor, and think you are laughing at her, and god help you then.
5 Sort of a “Rodney King meets DDR” kind of party, and I am not putting a note on DDR, so you will just have to look it up.
6 Homer Simpson says this, when at first he doesn’t get the role of Poochy in the Itchy and Scratchy cartoons.
7 Further making me scared: I was in the theatre with four enormous women. I actually made up names for them, which I have now forgotten. Trust me: they were funny. Anyway, the point is: there are a lot of fat jokes that are funny, but at first I didn’t want to laugh: fearful the ladies would eat me.
8 Yeah, right: like I’m going to tell you.

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