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Category:    Home > Reviews > Musical > Comedy > Dancing > Racism > Culture > Civil Rights > Hairspray – Shake & Shimmy Edition (Blu-ray Set)

Hairspray – Shake & Shimmy Edition (Blu-ray Set)


Picture: A-     Sound: A-     Extras: B     Film: B+



The Musical has almost reached the point that, like The Western, you have to reinvent the entire genre to do one.  Most Musicals since the 1980s have been a disaster, to the point that many films (like Flashdance) have had to be counted, even if they really were not Musicals.  Chicago worked simply because it knew how to deliver the goods with the needed energy and the casting was a plus, while Dreamgirls had to juggle history, fantasy and doing a full Musical out of a stage version that was somewhat deconstructionist.  Adam Shankman’s Hairspray (2007) takes the next step, based on the John Waters indie hit, is as much about the early 1960s as it is about today.


Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky in a terrific performance) is a young lady who loves music, dancing, has good (if a little dysfunctional) parents and believes in a better world and future for her and others, no matter how different.  Instantly one of the Musical’s great existentialist heroes, Tracy cannot see why there is any racism, why there should be hate, why “whites & blacks” cannot dance together and why more people don’t dance enough.  Her mother Edna (John Travolta in one of the funniest performances of the last few years by anyone) thinks she is wasting her time, projecting her own unhappiness onto her daughter.  Her joke & gag store owning father (the great Christopher Walken) tries to up the self-esteem of both.


Still in high school, Tracy watches the local TV dance show religiously and her best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes in a career-making performance) would more often if her religiously-oppressive mother (the amazing Allison Janney) would let her.  In the meantime, things a change is on the horizon, which Tracy discovers more so when she starts to meet the dancer from the show she is most infatuated with, Link Larkin (Zac Efron, out from behind the protective wall of Disney, hitting a homerun) who al the girls dig.  Could heavy-set Tracy become involved?


In so many ways, this old Baltimore is segregated by looksism, race, class and snobbery, down to the dance show, which gives a day here and there for “Negro Day” hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (another winning performance by Queen Latifah) who has to tolerate the powers that be at the station, including the self-centered Velma von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer in one of her best-ever performances) protecting her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) in hopes of making her the next big star.  When Tracy somehow wins a spot on the show, both will be challenged, though for Tracy, this will only be the beginning of challenging the entire system and she has no idea what she is in for.


Leslie Dixon’s screenplay (her script work on the 1989 film Loverboy is somewhat underrated) adaptation of the hit Mark O’Donnell/Thomas Meehan stage musical (from the 1988 film) takes full advantage of the filmmaking process and does clever things with digital that hundreds of big budget embarrassments failed to do, taking the Musical itself to a new level and frankly mowing down the many bad Music Videos since the late 1980s that ruined that art form.  At every turn, there are surprises, hilarious jokes and golden moments that make this the best Musical in decades in the best tradition of what Classical Hollywood put out at its peak.


Sure, it can be more daring, but it never becomes too gross, yet it does not hold back in its boldness about Civil Rights, human nature or lets go of its exceptional grasp of the music; especially the genres covered.  While the Civil Rights movement is treated as incidental to some extent in Dreamgirls (where the Motown-like company serves as odd refuge from reality in one of that film’s great ironies) is taken head-on in this film.


Shankman’s films have been at least competent, classy product, but his biggest previous hit Bringing Down The House (2003) proved you could handle and spoof ignorance in a knowingly broad way.  The more substantial issues he takes on, the greater a director he becomes and all this without abandoning entertainment, substance or comedy, which is something few directors could pull off.  He has become a better director since and this could be a career-changing work that puts him on the A-list for a long time.


The cast is also top-rate and Travolta wisely asked for Walken and Pfeiffer in a brilliant coup for the film.  The chemistry among all the actors, singers and dancers is phenomenal, like few films we have seen in many years.  From its opening visual reference to West Side Story (1960) to constant hints of other great musicals (like the Grease films) and pop culture, once this film gets started, it just gets better and better and better.  The songs are rare in that they are all distinct and memorable, choreography top rate and designs consistent, creating a density that creates another world perfect for Musicals.  Hairspray is one of the year’s triumphs and a must-see, especially on Blu-ray.


The 1080p 2.35 X 1 digital High Definition image is terrific, stylized with an advanced color palette that becomes more complex as the film moves along.  Not since Down With Love (another retro comedy, reviewed elsewhere on this site) has a film used color so effectively.  Filmed in Super 35mm (complete with a CinemaScope joke in the script,) Bojan Bazelli (Body Snatchers, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) tops himself in a genre he is not used to working in.  He did not want to shoot in scope, but wow, does this look good.  The superior HD image is stunning, with great depth, detail, color and solid appearance (down to the Video Black, White & Red) that makes the image here often reference quality.  Sure, there are limits from the digital internegative and Super 35 itself is a more limited frame than if this were shot in real anamorphic Panavision or the like, but New Line has picked the right film to launch their HD entrance with and we look forward to comparing this to the HD-DVD due to be announced soon.


In the audio department, we get a DTS MA 7.1 mix that is instantly a sonic stunner, perfect for a Musical with this kind of energy and dynamics.  Easily surpassing the CD soundtrack version and Dolby Digital 5.1 on the standard DVD editions, this is a new watermark for audio on a Musical (Chicago had PCM 5.1 on Blu-ray, Dreamgirls Dolby Digital 5.1 on the now out-of-print Blu-ray and Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 on the HD-DVD) and will hopefully be a new industry standard New Line will get the rest of the industry to follow.  Vocals are exceptionally recorded and so are the musicians to the point that audiophiles will consider this of particular sonic reference value.  This is a new high for composer Marc Shaman to boot.  The combination of picture and sound will sell HD to the public big time.


Extras include a sing-along lyric track, step-by-step dance instructions, five Deleted Scenes, including the never-before-seen musical number I Can Wait, You Can't Stop The Beat: The Long Journey of Hairspray Documentary, Hairspray Extensions: Multi-view Dance Experience, The Roots of Hairspray From Buddy Deane to Broadway!, two audio commentary tracks: one with Adam Shankman & Nikki Blonsky, the other with Producers Craig Zadan & Neil Meron, a Golden Compass preview, the original theatrical trailer for this film and Blu-ray exclusive Behind The Beat picture-in-picture feature.



-   Nicholas Sheffo


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