Normally, when it comes to sneak previews, I get a chance to see a movie less than a week before it opens. Sometimes it may be about 10 days prior to release. At best, as with Hoot and The Astronaut Farmer, it was 3 weeks in advance. So imagine my surprise when I scored an advanced screening of Hairspray, which opens in July.
A studio rep said before the movie that we were the first audience to see a completed version of the film. At first I was skeptical, but I did notice seats reserved for New Line bigwig Toby Emmerich and producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. (Don't know if they actually attended; I didn't know what they looked like.) Maybe they were in town for the ShoWest convention?
Like The Producers before it, Hairspray is a low-budget film that became a Tony winning musical, and is being adapted back into a bigger budget film. I haven't seen either previous incarnation, so I don't know how much of this movie comes directly from the source material. My expectations were low after seeing this production photo; I figured the casting of John Travolta would make the film lame and too gimmicky. Fortunately, I was wrong.
It's an attractive premise: Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nicole Blonsky) wins a spot on a local TV show in 1962 and tries to integrate it. She's a terrific find, almost cartoonishly short when compared to her ridiculously tall co-stars (including Travolta, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, and Queen Latifah).
Tracy encounters static from the show's producer (Michelle Pfeiffer), a demented stage mother who favors her daughter (Brittany Snow) as the female star of the show. At least she has the support of the show's host (James Marsden, channeling Ryan Seacrest more than Dick Clark), who's willing to shake things up.
Pfeiffer makes a curious villain when she doesn't wear a catsuit. She vamps it up sufficiently, making her character neither menacing nor unfeeling. Plus she's noticeably both beautiful and aged. You can sense the desperation of a woman trying to retain the attention she used to receive without effort and relive her glory through the next generation. The studio rep said that some makeup effects were yet to be added, but I hope they're applied to Travolta instead.
Speaking of, Tracy's mother Edna Turnblad never stops looking and sounding like John Travolta in a dress, but I give him credit for going for it and not acting like he's out of place here. There's one sweet scene where he and Walken (who plays Mr. Turnblad) do a romantic song and dance, and at the end we're denied a kiss. That choice seemed a little spineless, especially after we're treated to an interracial teenage smooch later. Why one and not the other? Maybe it's something they'll change before the release.
Bear in mind that the whole thing is a bit of a racial fantasy, where the only thing that stands between segregation and integration is tradition. Aside from one extended (and, in my opinion, pace disrupting) scene of a peaceful protest march, the film bears no resemblance to reality, which was fine.
Finally, this is maybe the first movie musical I've seen where the songs drive the plot more than the dialogue. As a result, the whole experience follows a definite rhythm and beat. By comparison, most follow the Disney pattern of building the story around a few standout numbers. The Hairspray approach makes more sense, and I wish all songs were this articulate.