Not a Drag

John Travolta in Hairspray.

John Travolta (left) and Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray

Hairspray (New Line Cinema) isn’t quite Grease—an all-singing, all-dancing event so irresistibly vulgar that it promises to single-handedly revive the movie musical for a new generation. But neither is it Dreamgirls—a bland, high-minded slog that serves only to remind you how moribund the genre is. Jam-packed with song-and-dance numbers (around 24 in all, including four songs that appear only in the closing credits), this movie-turned-stage-show-turned-movie-again is intermittently tasty, if a little too frantically eager to please.

It’s 1962, and Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is a chubby, beehived Baltimore high-schooler with a lifelong dream of dancing on The Corny Collins Show, a local daytime version of American Bandstand. She bounds out of bed singing the movie’s first and perhaps catchiest number, “Good Morning, Baltimore,” an infectious ode to Charm City delivered whilst skipping past sleeping bums and scurrying vermin on her way to school. Sent to detention for “inappropriate hair height,” Tracy learns some down-and-dirty new dance moves from Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), whose mother Maybelle (Queen Latifah) hosts The Corny Collins Show’s monthly “Negro Day.”

At a public audition, Tracy dances her way on to the program, but her plus-sized body and cheerful affirmations that “every day should be Negro Day!” make her the sworn enemy of the show’s prissy princess, Amber (Brittany Snow), and her awful mother, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), an avowed segregationalist who produces The Corny Collins Show. Fat acceptance and civil rights keep cozy company in this movie’s hard-to-disagree-with politics: If you can love your big blond beautiful self, it seems, loving your darker-complected brother is sure to follow.

Director Adam Shankman’s adaptation of the stage play based on John Waters’$2 1988 cult film preserves little of Waters’ signature yuckiness. (Michelle Pfeiffer’s character never pops her daughter’s zits, for example, nor does the heroine perform her final number in a pink gown patterned with giant roaches.) But to be fair, most of the de-weirdification already happened on the way to turning Waters’ kinky satire into a hit Broadway show—and Waters himself, who appears in a two-second cameo as the neighborhood flasher, seems to look kindly upon the project’s new incarnation. Despite its wholesomeness, this version stays remarkably true to the spirit of the original, with one size-60 exception: John Travolta as Edna Turnblad.

How you feel about Hairspray will depend entirely on your reaction to this performance, in which John Travolta reaches deep down inside and pulls out an unexpected and at times bewildering drag persona. His Edna owes nothing to the high camp of Divine’s (divine) performance in the original, nor to Harvey Fierstein’s gravel-voiced version in the Broadway show. With his dark blue eyes peering from beneath creamy folds of latex, Travolta looks like Elizabeth Taylor on steroids, while his thick Baltimore/Philadelphia accent—”Tracy” becomes “Treecy,” “so great” sounds like “seeuw gright”—evokes no one so much as MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews. When he first appeared on-screen, I feared Travolta’s casting would be a disaster of elephantine proportions. But a scene or two later, his interpretation began to grow on me as I realized, oh my God, he’s playing it straight.

I don’t mean to pun on “straight” (and I could care less whether John Travolta has a secret gay life). I mean that he chooses to play Edna Turnblad not as a drag grotesque but as a shy, housebound laundress who slowly comes into her own—a choice whose sincerity feels a bit off in this movie’s kitschy context but that’s nonetheless affecting and weirdly brave.

It doesn’t hurt that, 30 years after Saturday Night Fever, Travolta remains a fabulous dancer—specifically, he has a gift for dancing in character, moving his body in a way that shows you something about his soul. Midway through the film, he has a delicate pas de deux with Christopher Walken, who, as devoted husband and gag-gift salesman Wilbur Turnblad, reminds us that he got his start as a Broadway hoofer.

In the group dance number “Run and Tell That,” the young Elijah Kelley all but submits an audition tape for a movie musical of his own (four words: Sammy Davis Jr. biopic!). Director Shankman is a former dancer and choreographer, and while he occasionally makes the mistake of staging the dance numbers too frenetically, at least he respects his dancers enough not to chop their limbs out of the frame like Rob Marshall did in Chicago.

The songwriting team, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, supplement their stage score with several new songs created for the movie. Even if no individual number approaches Shaiman’s brilliant work for the South Park movie (this is the man who co-wrote such classics as “Kyle’s Mom’s a Bitch” and “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”), Hairspray more than fulfills that most basic (but not easy) task of the movie musical: It leaves audiences frugging their way down the aisle.