Friday, July 27, 2007

Flash: Travolta is NOT Revolta

Yes, I know, the thought of John Travolta in drag and wearing a fat suit for the movie version of the musical "Hairspray" is, ah, nauseating. But, surprise! She's terrific! Portraying Edna, a sweet and shy show biz mom from Baltimore, Travolta is not only convincing and charming but, well, beautiful, in a heavy sort of way. Forget what you thought about the apologist for Scientology whose career has been uneven at best (though I did like him as the Archangel Michael). He should win the Oscar for best transvestite performance of the year (previous winners being Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in "Some Like it Hot" and Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie").

Christopher Walken, as well, has not been one of my favorite actors. His face gives me the shudders (which is useful, since he usually plays a villain). But as Wilbur, Edna's husband in "Hairspray," Walken is touching and tender, and the dance with Travolta (pictured above) is delightful. As the only skinny member of his family, Wilbur encourages his daughter, Tracey, to audition as a dancer for the local music TV show. "Go for it! You gotta think big to be big!" Nikki Blonsky as Tracy is a fountain of enthusiasm amidst the urban rot of Baltimore (the scenery is rife with drunks and rats). Blonsky is making her debut and she is wonderful. The film is packed with amazing performances, from Michelle Pfeiffer as a white supremist to Queen Latifah as her bete noir, Motormouth Maybelle, leader of the "negro" contingent on the segregated TV show.

Written by John Waters for his 1988 film, "Hairspray" tackles discrimination in its many forms under the guise of a feel-good musical, a Busby Berkeley extravaganza for the 1960's. Travolta's predecessor was the outrageous transsexual, Divine, who died of an obesity-related condition shortly after the original film was released. When the story was transposed to Broadway as a musical in 2002, gay icon Harvey Fierstein played Edna. The three versions of Waters' love song to his home town are referenced in the film. Waters himself has a brief cameo as a flasher who parts his raincoat for shocked pedestrians during the opening number, "Wake Up, Baltimore." Ricki Lake, who played Tracy in the original film, has a walk-on as one of the talent agents at the Miss Hair Spray pageant (along with director Adam Shankman and composer Marc Shaiman), and she sings "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now" over the final credits with Blonsky and Marissa Janet Winokur who played Tracy on Broadway.

It's the music that got me. After the opening number I wanted to stand up and cheer. Each number was outstanding, from the tunes to the vocals and the steps. Shankman, a noted choreographer, pulls out all of the stops in this big-budget musical. Extras and special effects abound, but they never serve to distract from the music, a pastiche of all the pop genres of the Kennedy years, an homage to that innocent time before the Beatles, disco and punk transformed the pre-CD landscape. This could be a prequel to "Saturday Night Fever." I ran home after the show and immediately downloaded the soundtrack from iTunes. It's playing now, bringing smiles to my face.

Somehow the film of "Hairspray" avoids dissolving into camp and cynicism. And while prejudice against fat people and black people is highlighted by the story, the situations are never simplified in a "why can't we all get along" sort of way. The relation between ambition and cruelty, inter-racial love and political protest all come together through the eyes of Tracy and the music helps make a better world seem possible. Of course we now know better. And that backdrop of Katrina and Iraq puts 1960's Baltimore in perspective. But for a little while we can forget and remember how hopeful we felt during the Kennedy years.

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