Hairspray was a musical written back in the 80s and it shows. Not because of the comedy or the songs, both of which are passable and certainly catchy, but because it delivers a story which is more than a little problematic. There are some big themes and a clear message that Hairspray is trying to communicate but it isn’t necessarily doing it in the most productive way.
The movie is set in the 1960s, clearly demonstrated by the large hair (giving the movie its title), the iconic fashion and the start of pop music, which helps give the film its soundtrack. The film is about Tracy Turnblad, a student who loves to dance but doesn’t necessarily fit the usual dancing mould. She wants to be on the local dance TV show very badly and the story follows that journey. Along the way, she also helps integrate her town.
Its that last aspect which is off-putting. Hairspray is a movie where the large problems of segregation, racism and the struggle of Civil Rights Movement are solved by a young white girl who dances. If the story is supposed to highlight division and inequality, putting a spotlight on a period in American history, it does so poorly. Its not that it is making light of the struggle, because at times it takes it very seriously and there some key moments which resonate, but more the fact that the issue is not only saved by the white characters but done so very easily.
Of course, this could be placing far too much gravitas on the shoulders of a film which has fun at its core. The songs clearly give that impression and while there are few which stand-out, they are all passable, enjoyable and framed in the usual musical manner.
The same can be said for the cast, who deliver fantastic performances. Nikki Blosky as Tracy holds the film together well and is ably supported by the likes of Amanda Bynes, Zac Efron and Queen Latifah. The most surprising performances come from Tracy’s parents. Her Dad is played by Christopher Walken and her Mum by John Travolta and they are clearly having the time of their life. Their scenes, including their own musical number, are great and bring a smile to the face.
Its just a shame that all the good will, decent jokes and catchy songs can’t undo the uneasy feeling you get as you watch the story play out in all too simple a fashion. There is a very good message to deliver here, and a great setting for the story, but it is written backwards, with the white people saving the day and the black people almost passengers in their own story.
Overall, Hairspray is a decent musical with some good songs, funny jokes, a clever idea and some brilliant performances, especially from Walken and Travolta. However, the way it tells the story of race and integration doesn’t sit right and it puts too much focus on the White Saviours and solves an age old problem far too easily.
Rating – 2.5
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