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Hairspray (2007)

February 15th, 2008     by Catherine Hayday     Comments

I’m not big into high school movies, or song and dance movies, or remakes. So was Hairspray ever fighting an uphill battle with me.

A friend of mine gets teen swag and sent some my way, in the form of the 2007 Hairspray DVD. I probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise, which is good and bad, because if I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t have all these damn songs in my head.

It’s… fine. I think it got pretty mixed reviews when it first came out: under some fire for hiring John Travolta in drag as the mother, Edna Turnblad (under fire since Scientology, of which Travolta is a member, defines homosexuality as an illness); and panned for being a bit bland on the big dance numbers.

But it’s a few other things I’m going to comment on here: that it’s good to see any mainstream movie have an overweight star; that even so, Hairspray gives pretty mixed messages on where they stand with that; that I felt a bit bad for the baddie Velma Von Tussle; and that they’ve still “got so far to go” in terms of billing.

Tracy Turnblad, played by Nikki Blonsky, is fat. Not “fat” like Hollywood fat, but actually overweight. Obsessed with the after-school variety TV program, the Corny Collins Show, Tracy is a talented singer and dancer, and over the course of the movie she wins a spot on Corny Collins, the heart of the heartthrob (Link, played by Zac Efron) and triumphs over the pretty thin blond girl. The overarching message is that size doesn’t matter.

But Hairspray doesn’t totally commit to its own message. While the other big women in the movie Motormouth Maybelle (played by Queen Latifah), and Tracy’s mother Edna, sing about being “Big Blonde and Beautiful”, in the first line of the first song, Tracy wakes up singing how she’s “hungry for something that I can’t eat”. Then she grabs an apple for breakfast. Which she doesn’t ever bite, tossing it instead to someone else in the middle of her opening number (I guess dance having replaced the need for nourishment).

When we do see Tracy eat it’s exclusively candy bars and pie. Which I have a problem with. Celebrate being different sizes, absolutely. Not beating yourself up about how you look, totally on board. But it’s not good for anyone to be eating themselves into unhealthiness. And while I didn’t need to see tap-dancing carrots in the background (no one needs to see that), I’m not loving the “eat crap and don’t have a problem with it” message.

In “I Can Hear The Bells” Tracy sings about her infatuation with Link. Singing how “everybody warns he won’t like what he’ll see, but I know that he’ll look inside of me”. So, where are we now? Is big beautiful, or is big something you can ignore? Or are we going all the way to it doesn’t matter what anyone looks like, it’s all personality?

The mother is even more contradictory about her size. In turns defiantly singing that she doesn’t care what people think about how she looks, then stress eating and bemoaning her weight. The only character who is consistently big and confident about her appearance is Motormouth Maybelle.

Then there’s Velma. I felt for Velma. I mean, she’s a psychotic bitch, but she’s also a single mother managing a TV station in the 1960s. Props to her for that. On the other hand, she’s flat-out racist and a fairly abhorrent person. But the owner also blames her for everything that goes wrong, in or out of her control. While she deserves to be fired, she is also taking the fall for her superiors. I’m not bucking for a “Velma’s Story” spin-off (I actually thought Michelle Pfeiffer was a bit ‘meh’ in the role), but it’s interesting to give this particular villain’s struggle a little more thought.

Okay, last gripe, and then I’ll say something nice. Alright, I’ll say something nice first. These perky songs have completely earwormed me. I watched the movie last weekend, and found myself singing along to “You Can’t Stop The Beat” while I was cleaning my kitchen (turns out I enjoy listening to empowering songs while I do housework).

Earworming led to iTunes, which led to me owning the soundtrack. Where I noticed something. In the movie, there are a trio of black women who sing “The New Girl In Town” and who also feature prominently in “Welcome to the 60s”. But I have no idea who they are. Because they’re not listed in the song credits. In “The New Girl In Town”, only Brittney Snow (who played the pretty thin blond girl) is listed as the singer. Even though the song is split in half between her version, and the other women.

Trying to find them on IMDB, I’m guessing they’re the Dynamites? Last lines in the credits. Way below “Talent Agent #3”. Maybe there’s some elaborate studio billing agreement at work here, but that strikes me as odd and unfair. They sang half the first song (the better half) and most of the second. Anyone have an explanation for that?

So, summing up, it’s sort of good, sort of not. Very colourful sets and costumes, but pretty beige on the message. Peppy and toothless. 2.5/5.

Tags: body politics, film fridays

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