Lightning strikes twice with ‘Hairspray’ remake |

Lightning strikes twice with ‘Hairspray’ remake

Howie Nave
John Travolta, left, and Nikki Blonsky star in "Hairspray." / David James / New Line Cinema

Much like director Mel Brooks’ incredible success taking his campy movie “The Producers” to Broadway, director John Waters’ 1988 campy movie “Hairspray” was also turned into a successful Broadway production. But this is where the parallels end.

While Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane may have been the toast of Broadway on stage in “The Producers,” their remake of the movie version didn’t quite hit the mark. However, the remake of Waters’ film has proven that lightning can strike twice, and this version is actually more entertaining than the original, and I rarely say that about remakes.

Michelle Pfeiffer has been vindicated in a movie musical 25 years after her lame attempt to catch fire with “Grease 2.” That’s like trying to do a sequel to “Dirty Dancing.” Wait. There was a sequel (“Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights”) just a few years ago, and it was beyond bad. I gave it half a bagel out of five, and now that I think of it, that was maybe too generous.

John Waters sets all of his movies in Baltimore (where he grew up), and with this movie … well, Baltimore may be the next tourist attraction for a whole new generation of fans.

As much as I loved Divine, Ricki Lake and Deborah Harry in the original (Sonny Bono was also a cast member), the new and improved remake boasts a very entertaining ensemble that includes John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, Queen Latifah and newcomer Nikki Blonsky, who is a joy to watch. This is her first feature role, and she is so enthusiastic in the role as Tracy Turnblad. Her dream is to dance on the popular program “The Corny Collins Show.” It’s Baltimore’s version of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Tracy is obsessed with the show, so every day she and her best friend, Penny (Amanda Bynes), tune in to watch the show and its crooning host, Link Larkin (Zac Efron).

After one of the stars of the show exits, Corny Collins (Jason Marsden) holds auditions to see who will be the next person on his program, so, of course, Tracy is over the moon with joy. With a little help from her friends — in particular, Seaweed (Elijah Kelly) — Tracy makes it on the tube, much to the shock and anger of Velma Von Tussle (played deliciously by Pfeiffer). Tussle is the television station’s manager and mom of the star dancer, Amber (Brittany Snow), who is also Tracy’s rival and the complete opposite of her both emotionally and physically.

Tracy then decides to stir things up even more, which brings us to Queen Latifah’s character, Motormouth Maybelle.

The time is 1962, and shows like this are pretty much “whites only,” with the exception of a “negro day” once a month. One day is too much for Velma, who is a racist and overall bad person. Her daughter is thin and cute, compared to the pleasantly plump Tracy, so already you can see the story unfolding on one level. There are many here and, yes, it really does boil down to one’s perception about what beauty really is.

The movie, as you may have guessed, has plenty of social overtones and, unlike “Grease,” has no problems bringing up such issues in the dawn of the civil rights era. Topics such as interracial couples are brought up and, like the original, it keeps in plenty of the sass that I’m sure made John Waters happy.

This, coupled with plenty of great musical numbers, colorful characters and a crisp direction by Adam Shankman, makes “Hairspray” a fun romp to watch. I had almost forgotten that, in addition to directing, Shankman has a long and impressive career as a choreographer (he assisted in that duty here), so he not only knows how to stage the dance numbers, but he also starred in movies, so he knows how to direct actors and, being one of them, is open to their creative input as well.

Much has been ballyhooed about the amazing transformation of Travolta into Edna Turnblad, Tracy’s mom. He really is a different person, and having him play a woman with Wilber (Walken) as her husband was some of the funniest screen chemistry between two people I have seen in a long time. It’s truly fun watching two veteran actors ham it up and genuinely have a blast in the process. It’s also fun watching the cameos, so if you haven’t seen the 1988 John Waters original, you really should. In one scene, we are treated to a slimmed-down Ricki Lake, who plays an agent in her cameo. It must have been a trip for Lake to appear in “Hairspray” all over again some 20 years later. Even John Waters (who wrote the screenplay for this version as well) appears briefly, so don’t blink.

What we have here is an entertaining movie with great musical numbers, fun dance moves, an eclectic cast and a social conscience all rolled into one. And who said the screen version of the musical was dead? One only has to turn to such recent movies as “Rent,” “Dreamgirls,” “Chicago” and even “Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical,” just to name a few, to prove there is an eager audience out there wanting to hoof it up every once in a while.

— Howie Nave is host/manager of The Improv comedy club inside Harveys and reviews films for seven radio stations throughout northern California and Nevada, including the Sirius Radio Network every Sunday evening. He hosts “Howie’s Morning Rush” on Tahoe’s KRLT radio and you can see his film reviews every Friday morning on KOLO ABC TV Channel 8.

Keepin’ it reel:

Now Playing: “Hairspray”

Starring: John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden, Queen Latifah, Brittany Snow, Zac Efron, Elijah Kelley, Allison Janney, Nikki Blonsky, Taylor Parks, Paul Dooley, Jerry Stiller, Darren Frost and Ricki Lake

Directed by: Adam Shankman

Rated: PG for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking

Running time: 98 minutes

Howie gives it: 4.5 out of 5 bagels

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