This film is fun. It is fun, fun, fun, fun, fun. It might be the most fun you can have with your clothes on or, if you have been married a good while, then with them off. John Travolta as Mrs Edna Turnblad is fun. Christopher Walken as Mr Wilbur Turnblad is riotous fun. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, the big girl with the big hair and the big heart, is fun and she’s a terrific dancer. From its opening number — the pounding showtune ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ — this film leaps at you with such joy and vigour and generosity you cannot reject it. It pins you down and has its way with you, clothes on or off. It doesn’t care. It is quite ruthless in this way.
OK, some have been sniffy about this version of Hairspray already. It’s not, they say, as original as John Waters’s original film. Well, why would it be? This is not the original. The original film was released in 1988, became a Broadway musical, and has now been made into a film again. So what? Has Shakespeare only ever been done the once? Pride and Prejudice? The Hound of the Baskervilles? And have any been as gloriously fast-paced, candy-coloured, camp and funny as this? Have any included John Travolta attired in flame-coloured chiffon and shaking his mighty, albeit prosthetic booty? This is a film that has no agenda beyond pure, plus-sized entertainment. Yes, it does affect to have a message about acceptance and racial prejudice — it is set in the non-integrated America of the 1960s — but it is possibly more the pastiche of a message movie rather than a message movie per se, so I don’t think it’s necessary to get hung up on all that.
The soul of the movie is, of course, Tracy Turnblad, the chubby Baltimore teenager who has three ambitions: to dance; to make out with the best-looking boy in town; to appear on the local TV dance show, The Corney Collins Show. The show is not integrated or, as the host puts it, ‘Nice white kids lead the way and once a month we have Negro day!’ But even that one day a month much displeases Velma Von Tussle, the scheming, racist manager of the TV station (Michelle Pfeiffer, relishing her villainy and all-round nastiness) whose one daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow), is Tracy’s greatest rival.
Travolta, as Tracy’s agoraphobic, super-plus-sized mother, does take a bit of getting used to. Indeed, the prosthetics are so constricting that he does, for a while at least, look like a squeezed Lily Tomlin being channelled through lard. This sort of dragged-up, exaggerated role is probably a no-brainer for any leading man — look, it’s John Travolta in a frock, how wild! — but ultimately he is totally endearing, as is Walken, who plays Edna’s adoring husband Wilbur. At one point the two engage in the most delicious waltz scene while dueting a song with delicious lyrics, such as ‘you’re like a stinky old cheese, babe, just getting riper with age’ and ‘you’re like a fatal disease, babe, but there’s no cure so let this fever rage’.
Look, it’s not perfect, just as Hairspray has never been perfect. The plot is slight and silly and, while everything is thrown at the tunes, few are especially memorable. The best, by far, is Queen Latifah singing a protest song as Motormouth Maybelle, Velma’s counterpart. It was quite moving, as I recall, but I could not now hum it. Still, there are some lovely touches, including nods to the original — John Waters appears in a cameo as a flasher — as well as a nod to Travolta’s past work. When, in the final scene, the usually shy Edna is encouraged to join in the mass-dancing, she does the two-finger thing across her eyes that Uma Thurman did in Pulp Fiction. Nice. But you know the very best thing about Hairspray?
It’s a thought that occurred to me about halfway through and the thought went like this: it’s just such a joy to see a fat girl on screen dancing exhilaratingly and having fun. When did you last get that at the cinema? Or anywhere? Are fat people even allowed to have fun? Aren’t they meant to simply stay at home in between sessions of being bullied on TV by Gillian McKeith? Go see this movie. It’s happy and innocent and if it doesn’t pin you down and then have its way with you, you may be quite a frigid kind of person all round.