In a summer boasting two movies derived from children’s toys and countless sequels, originality feels like the rarest of birds. And now comes Hairspray, a movie whose provenance requires a sheet of graph paper to track. Director Adam Shankman’s movie musical is based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, which in turn was based on another movie, John Waters’ 1988 camp classic. Waters’ original was itself inspired by the purrs and wails of the vintage “race” music from The Flares and The Five Du-Tones that wallpapered the director’s blue-collar bildungsroman.
Even the casting of this most recent permutation has an oddly second-generation feel. The original Hairspray featured Waters’ ersatz male muse Divine as Edna Turnblad, a role now played by John Travolta, star of another kinetic high school musical set in the era of greasers and poodle skirts, Grease. Travolta’s co-star is Michelle Pfeiffer, who appeared in 1982’s Grease 2. The tangle of extra-filmic references is enough to make your head swim.
Chirping like Sandra Dee, teenage Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) emerges in an opening musical homage to raunch that includes a friendly “how-do!” to garbage-picking rats and the local flasher (Waters himself). The number is a parody of the musical tendency to put black censor bars over life’s more sordid slices.
But Tracy has a problem. After managing—despite her zaftig figure—to find a spot shaking it on her favorite afternoon TV dance program, she discovers that the program’s “Negro Day,” a token nod to the city’s black population, has been shut down. The film’s plot breaks down to an edgier battle—between racist whites such as station manager Velma Von Tussle (Pfeiffer) and checkerboard progressives—than the one between the Jets and the Sharks.
Since his long-ago days of Pink Flamingos and Mondo Trasho, Waters has mellowed into a lovable elder statesman of sleaze, reincorporated like an ingrown hair into a culture that might have once tweezed him out. This third-generation Hairspray is a reflection of that cultural drift. Where once Waters might have repulsed with his love of dog poop and penis humor, he now occupies an almost moderate middle ground in the land of Judd Apatow, Sacha Baron Cohen and the Farrelly brothers, American film’s new guard of envelope pushers.
This newest Hairspray incarnation manages to be both peppy and rude in the right places, slipping in jokes about women in prison, venereal disease and the fetish appeal of chubby women—anything to goose the '50s repression represented by sunny teenage dance shows and segregation. And while Travolta is an abominable casting choice, a wholly unsatisfying translation of Waters’ cruddy aesthetic, the latest Hairspray proves to be pleasingly frothy and often funny entertainment.