John Travolta in a fat suit, playing the role of a middle-aged, married woman. Sounds like another wacky, but doomed to fail, way of getting his career back on track, right? Especially given it’s a the adpation of the Broadway musical based on a 1988 John Waters film of the same name. Yet, despite all the reasons Hairspray might be expected to go terribly wrong, it succeeds largely because all involved understand and love being part of what it is: a camp song and dance to lose yourself in.
Set in 1962 Baltimore, the plump Tracy Turblad (Nikki Blonsky) dreams of being part of the streetwise dancing progamme The Corny Collins Show. Presented by cheesy heartthrob Corny (James Marsden), it features the best new moves everyday and the chance for Tracy to drool over the hot Link Larkin (Zac Efron), much to the dismay of her mother Edna (a cross-dressing Travolta) who believes it is trash TV. When one of the stars has to take a break, Tracy attends the open auditions. Although she is initially rebuked by producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer), she wins a spot thanks to her black friend Seaweed (Elijah Kelly). But as Tracy becomes a sensation, she begins to learn there is an underlying race issue of segregation in America, emphasised by The Corny Collins Show’s regular Negro Day which is restircted to once a month and where white isn’t allowed to mix with black on the dancefloor. Tracy is determined to bring equality even if it threatens her own popularity.
When Travolta gets to strutt his stuff, it is with a very clear nod and wink to the audience.
This politcised aspect of Hairspray is hardly subtle and more than a little cliched, but it is in no way overbearing on the bright and sunny attitude it puts across. Almost every moment is taken up by a song with every major star, a list which also includes Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah, getting the chance to belt out a number while proving they have the moves to match. When Travolta gets to strutt his stuff, it is with a very clear nod and wink to the audience rather than a time to prove he has still got the Saturday Night Fever. This is the beauty of Hairspray: it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it also lets us in on the joke at the same time. When Tracy joins the black crowd in marching in protest about race segregation it does strike a serious tone for a short period, but this is quickly replaced by more of the ‘everything is a-ok’ attitude that by singing and jiving about our problems will mean life will turn out good.
So Travolta’s latest comeback is far from the disaster many might have predicted as his drag role is just one of the many top turns in this ensemble cast. He once said he regretted turning down Richard Gere’s part in Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) which went on to Oscar glory. Well, given the huge amount of fun everything about Hairpsray is — from the glossy stle of the 1960s to the sassy dance vibes featuring blending fantasy and reality — he has made up for missing that musical movie with this far more polished and broadway-esque affair. He’ll probably have to take a back seat in the plaudit stakes to Nikki Blonsky, though, as Hairspray has provided her with a platform to launch her career as a Hollywood star.