Film review: Hairspray (2007), directed by Adam Shankman
I saw this film not knowing that it’s based on a musical based on the 1988 film Hairspray. If I had known that, I might have approached it differently. As it is, I thought it was a re-make of the 1988 film, which I rather enjoyed for various reasons, and why I thought this film sucked balls.
Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), despite being chubby, wants to get on the popular Corny Collins (James Marsden) Show, where teenagers in 1962 dance and get scored. It’s a big thing. Even though she’s overweight, she manages not only to get on the show, but also get dancer Link Larkin (Zac Efron) as a boyfriend. Meanwhile, Tracy’s mother Edna (John Travolta in drag) is housebound, because she has self-esteem issues, caused by being overweight.
TV station boss Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer in full on bitch mode) doesn’t like her beautiful, slim daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) to be upstaged by some fat girl who thinks she can be on TV with normal-sized people. Tracy, however, is a hit with the other cast as well as the viewers, because she’s actually a nice person – unlike Amber and her mother.
Oh, and then there’s something about racism. And they sing a lot.
Also starring Christopher Walken as Wilbur Turnblad, Amanda Bynes as Penny Pingleton, Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, Elijah Kelley as Seaweed and Jerry Stiller as Mr Pinky, with a cameo by Ricki Lake (who played Tracy in the 1988 film).
BAHHH. Everything great about the 1988 film has been sucked out of this version. The music, that fantastic oldies soundtrack, has been replaced with standard Broadway showtunes. The issue of racism and trying to fight it has not been replaced, but it has been given a considerably smaller space, and very much marginalised. Trivialised, you could even say. Tracy doesn’t come off as half as much a fighter for what’s right than she did in 1988. Nah, she’s reduced to a jolly fat chick.
Which brings me to the next problem I have with this production. In the original film Tracy was chubby, but aside from a few “the doctor says she ought to eat less” comments from her mum, the fact that she was overweight was never treated as a problem. It didn’t cause her confidence issues, and Tracy didn’t seem to think about it much at all. She was a perfectly ordinary girl who wanted to dance on TV like everyone else, and decided to follow that dream.
Not so in this version.
No, here, the fact that Tracy is overweight is suddenly a big (pardon the pun) issue. Oh, poor, fat Tracy. You shouldn’t have a handsome boyfriend because you’re fat, Tracy. You should know your place, Tracy, and that place isn’t to be on TV with all the beautiful, skinny people. And so on and so forth. Then there’s Tracy’s mother, who hasn’t even been outside the house for a number of years because she’s so embarrassed about her size. Oh, sure, there’s a big musical number where Tracy drags her mum out on the town and tells her not to be embarrassed at all, but to dress up in something nice and shiny and then she won’t feel so bad.
Everything about this film stigmatises overweight people and tells them that being overweight is something they have to be ashamed of.
“But I thought the message is that there’s not a problem if you’re overweight, and you can still go after your dreams?” Yeah, that’s how it’s dressed up. In 1988, Tracy still went after her dreams. Her weight didn’t stand in her way of achieving them. She just went after her dreams, her size wasn’t a factor. Here, she has to overcome being fat, and the low self-esteem that often goes with it, before she can finally be happy. What a load of fatphobic crap!
Self-esteem issues and being overweight tend to go hand-in-hand, yes (been there, done that), but here it’s so blatantly obvious what they’re doing that it just becomes sickening. If they had played it like in the original film, as a girl who can achieve her dreams and be a hero and incidentally happens to be overweight at the same time, it wouldn’t have been a problem. Here, it is. Here it’s that a fat chick can overcome her weight and still show the world she can be just as popular as a skinny girl.
It’s trying so hard to be positive and uplifting, but because they go about it the wrong way, it ends up doing the exact opposite. Gasp! I don’t actually need to be skinny to be popular or to have a boyfriend or to enjoy life? Who’d a-thought it?!
And they removed all the fantastic music. I repeat that because I loved the music in the 1988 film, and to have it replaced with standard musical numbers is such a disappointment. (Update 2021: See also: Hallmark’s Dirty Dancing.)
Oh yes, and the racism? It’s not handled well. It’s all sort of treated as quaint and you can just imagine Travolta in drag tutting over it in an “oh don’t be silly” type way. The Tracy I liked was a strong heroine who stood up for her friends, not one that followed in the direction other people led her. Penny’s neurotic mother was silly in the previous film, here, she’s downright atrocious and should be locked up.
To summarise: Hairspray, the film-turned-musical-turned-film, tries to be funny and charming, but instead comes across as obnoxious, silly and prejudiced. And when film makers are so unsubtle that even I, a person more or less unable to read between lines, pick up on the underlying message and think “hey, what the fuck?” … it’s really not good.
1.5 out of 5 irons.