Production Company: New Line Cinema
Director: Adam Shankman
Cast: John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden, Brittany Snow, Nicole Blonsky, Zac Efron, Allison Janney, Elijah Kelley
Rating: PG for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking.
By Gregg Tubbs
(UMC.org)—Rest your feet before seeing Hairspray because from the first moment when the beat of the Baltimore street builds to the kitschy closing credits, your feet won’t stop tapping. This rhythmic, joyous musical is a tongue-in-cheek, but loving, send-up of the magical summer of 1962 when the '50s really gave way to the '60s. This was a time when city neighborhoods had a personality all their own, when local TV stations created its own local stars and when a dance contest could change everything overnight. It was also a time when everyone knew their place, and a girl’s lofty, teased hairdo was as stiff and rigid as society’s rules of race and class. But no barriers will stop Tracy Turnblad, a bubbly iconoclast who’s out to prove that big is beautiful and the color of your skin doesn’t matter so long as you can dance.
Along the way to teen dance fame, Tracy (Nicole Blonsky) helps shatter racial barriers and convinces her staid old neighborhood that it’s all right to be different. Copyright © 2007 New Line Cinema.
The evolution of Hairspray is a story in itself. In the 1988 original film, John Waters, cinema’s king of bad taste, unexpectedly switched from outrage to embrace and created a campy, but affectionate tribute to his own beloved Baltimore. Ricki Lake debuted as the portly but unstoppable Tracy Turnblad, whose dearest wish is to join the cast of the "Corny Collins Show," a local TV station’s version of American Bandstand. Along the way to teen dance fame, Tracy helps shatter racial barriers, coaxes her shy and even more rotund mom, Edna, out of her shell, and somehow convinces her staid old neighborhood that it’s all right to be different.
In 2002 Hairspray made the move to Broadway with new songs and a new script, but the story and campy attitude remained intact. The new film is based on the Broadway musical and features the glowing newcomer Nicole Blonsky as Tracy; a delightful Christopher Walken as her loopy, but devoted father Wilbur; and—retaining Hairspray’s gender-bending tradition—John Travolta, in a brilliant comic turn, as the fretful, but endearing Edna. The beauty of Travolta’s performance is that once you get past the physical transformation, you begin to see the fragile, but hopeful spirit beneath: Edna is a woman so self-conscious about her weight that she hasn’t left her apartment in years, so mindful of her status as a laundress that she’s afraid to hold her head up or really cut loose.
Edna symbolizes the deeper message in Hairspray—the need to go below the surface, beyond appearances to celebrate the beautiful diversity of humanity. In 1962 Baltimore is still a very segregated place, particularly the "Corny Collins Show" where the dancing teens ("the nicest kids in town") are all white—except for one day a week, dubbed "Negro Day," when black teens can take the stage. Even during the annual "Miss Hairspray Contest," black and white dancers are separated by a rope barrier. Just as the rigid fashions and look-alike hairstyles symbolize strict, but artificial social norms, the rope barrier challenges us to consider how many artificial barriers we continue to construct that separate and exclude based on race, appearance or social status.
Edna (John Travolta) symbolizes the deeper message in Hairspray—the need to go below the surface, beyond appearances to celebrate the beautiful diversity of humanity. Copyright © 2007 New Line Cinema.
It’s Tracy who begins to breach the barriers, first by dancing with the black kids in detention. But when she crosses the race line on the "Corny Collins Show," she sets off a ruckus that turns into a steamroller of racial change, including a stirring civil rights march. Lead by record-shop owner Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), the marchers sing the gospel showstopper "I Know Where I’ve Been," an anthem that distills the liberating soul of the film.
If the march is the rousing high-point, it’s the playful, loving duet between Wilbur and Edna Turnblad that steals the show and completes the message of acceptance and diversity. It’s a lovely scene that allows Walken, an old song and dance man himself, to pirouette with the padded, but limber Travolta. As they dance and croon "You’re Timeless to Me," it’s clear that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, especially when filtered through true love.
Hairspray is so filled with fun, music and good humor that you might forget that there’s a lesson underneath. The idea that the true character of a person is defined by inner qualities rather than outer ones like skin color, dress size or hairdo is delivered in a sugarcoated pill that goes down so smoothly that the closing song has to gently remind us that this is a lesson we have yet to master: "We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go."
- Have you seen either the original film or stage musical of Hairspray? How did this film compare? Was the message intact?
- John’s Waters, creator of the original Hairspray, likes to focus on society's misfits and nonconformists. Who in the film fits this category, either according to their own perceptions or those of others?
- Hairspray deals with issues of social status. What was Jesus' view of social status? Discuss examples from the Bible when Jesus broke the accepted social norms and conventions of his time, particularly with respect to those with whom he associated. (For example, see Luke 19:1-9, Matt. 9:10-13, Matt. 15: 1-20.)
- What characteristics make the Turnblads a loving family? What about Penny’s family? Are her mother’s Christian values true? How does she exhibit Christian love?
- Were you shocked or offended by seeing things like "Negro Day" in the film? Why? How can satirizing injustices can help us see them more clearly? Or how can satire make light of them?
- What is the symbolic meaning of the rope barrier between the dancers? What are some "rope barriers" in today's society that still unfairly separate people? What can you or your church do to begin to breach these barriers like Tracy?
- What "rope barriers" do you see in your own life? Are they imposed by others or are they self-imposed?
- How did Jesus teach us to look below the surface and judge only the inner person? (See Luke 11:37-44.)
- The film close with a song that states, "We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got a long way to go." In what ways is this true in the film? In what ways does it describe a situation in contemporary society or in your personal life?
- Do you believe God means for people of all races to live in harmony? Why or why not? How are all persons precious in the eyes of God?
Official Hairspray site