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Hairspray

John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES (2-DISC): Audio commentary by Director Adam Shankman and Nikki Blonsky; Audio commentary by producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron; Jump to a Song with optional Sing-a-long feature; The Roots of ‘Hairspray’; You Can’t stop the beat: The Long journey of Hairspray Extensions; Step by Step: The Dances Of Hairspray; Deleted scenes with commentary by Director Adam Shankman; Theatrical trailer.

AT FIRST glance, this third incarnation of John Waters’ 1988 movie could seem like an ugly prospect. Not only do viewers have to contend with the sight of John Travolta in a female fat suit but also a director whose previous track record includes The Pacifier, Cheaper By The Dozen 2 and A Walk To Remember.

Yet looks can be deceiving and – much like the message behind the movie itself – Hairspray defies expectation and even convention to emerge as a genuinely feel-good musical experience.

It’s lightweight, of course, but it wears its heart on its sleeve to such an extent that even the most hardened cynic should find something to enjoy – whether fans of song and dance or not.

The story itself sticks closer to the Broadway version of Hairspray than Waters’ quirky original and follows the fortunes of young Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), a big girl with big hair who dreams of appearing on Baltimore’s hippest TV dance party, The Corny Collins Show.

Ignoring the pleas of her overly protective, similarly-sized mother Edna (Travolta), Tracy sets about realising her ambition and wins a spot on Collins’ show where she quickly falls foul of its reigning princess, Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), and her scheming mother, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), particularly when she begins to court the attention of Amber’s boyfriend, Link Lark (Zac Efron).

To make matters worse, the budding relationship between her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) and black dancer Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) raises the much bigger issue of racial inequality.

As both a former dancer and choreographer himself, director Adam Shankman is ideally suited to juggle the demands of such a multi-layered production and does an excellent job of balancing the humour with the drama. Hairspray seldom feels preachy even though its messages are clear.

It means that audiences can sit back and enjoy some of its wilder extravagances, such as the sight of Travolta in a fat suit and some of its ballsier song and dance numbers (Miss Baltimore Crabs, in particular, emerges as a highlight).

The cast, too, seem to be having a blast, whether its playing to their strengths as performers (in the case of Blonsky or Efron) or against type (in the case of Travolta, who seems to be relishing his first chance to sing and dance since Grease).

Some of the songs threaten to go on a bit and the overall tone is impossibly sweet but Shankman always seems to have an ace up his sleeve whenever proceedings hit a lull – whether its the once-in-a-lifetime sight of seeing a feminine Travolta waltzing with hubby Walken, or Pfeiffer vamping it up to the best of her ability.

There are also some fun cameos from original Hairspray stars as well as stand out supporting turns from the likes of Amanda Bynes (a riot) and Allison Janey (as her overbearing mom).

It means that Hairspray defies the odds to emerge as a feel-good surprise that leaves you suitably uplifted.

Certificate: PG
Running time: 107mins