Transformations. They work. They don’t. With Transformers, big ‘bots morphing into vehicles and back worked, big-time. With Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks’ best movie isn’t getting the best reviews as a Broadway musical. But with Hairspray, even in four forms, a steady line of magic extends from a Baltimore TV show of the ’60s through John Waters’ 1988 movie to its recent Broadway musical spin to the movie musical version that’s new on DVD Nov. 20.
Such transformations are traced in Hairspray’s second-disc featurette The Roots of Hairspray. It begins with Baltimore’s Buddy Deane dance show for teens in the ’60s, which influenced Waters growing up. Cut to 2007, when director Adam Shankman (influenced in his youth by Saturday Night Fever) turned the Broadway musical based on Waters’ film into a movie musical that grossed a healthy $118 million.
Shankman was hip to the need for faithful transformations, as revealed on the DVD and also in an interview I did with him just before his film’s debut. First, he ensured he had Waters’ blessing. Then, he stuck with the original game plan of casting only a man in drag as heavy housewife Edna Turnblad (John Travolta for his film) and casting only an unknown newcomer as Edna’s spunky daughter, Tracy.
His Tracy turned out to be Nikki Blonsky, who hit the big-time after working at an ice cream parlor and who epitomizes this film’s feel-good charm as a ’60s Baltimore teen who just wants to dance and be loved for her plump self — and, while she’s at, help to fully integrate the TV dance show.
After savoring a musical movie on video, I often treat its DVD as a CD, playing songs only and skipping around. Take Rent, for instance, and go straight to Out Tonight and Another Day, the most dynamic movie musical sequence in many moons. As for Hairspray, pass “Go” and go straight to I Can Hear the Bells, this show’s best song, in which Blonsky’s Tracy rhapsodizes about a hunk she adores from afar. In musical terms, it’s the heroine’s traditional Act One “I want” song in which she declares her dreams (think Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid or Somewhere That’s Green from Little Shop of Horrors). But whatever the want, this number isn’t wanting. Funny, clever, smartly choreographed and beautifully sung, it’s this year’s great movie musical moment, and as catchy and heartfelt as they come. So check out Hairspray and zero in on Bells, a song that rings with conviction.