Starring: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Amanda Bynes
Director: Adam Shankman
Running Time: 117 mins
Hairspray is an American film about a high school girl who, after landing the role of a lifetime on an after-school dance show, begins to challenge the show’s producers on their stance on racial integration, initiating a wave of support for blacks in 1962 Baltimore.
This is one of those films that’s so brashly happy and bubbly that, try as I might to not get sucked in, is an undoubtedly enjoyable watch. It’s not a movie musical masterpiece, and its performances and dialogue don’t always impress, but the fantastic style of the 60s, a collection of upbeat, catchy songs, strong direction, and a positive message all work together to make the film a fun watch throughout.
The biggest positive I can draw from this film is its visual style. Just like the overall atmosphere of the film, the bright and bold colours that pop out on the screen throughout are instrumental in making this film as cheery as possible, whilst the convincing and entertaining depiction of a huge variety of late 50s/early 60s fashions is lovely to look at, a sterling job done by the costume and makeup crews.
Director Adam Shankman is a key feature in why this film is so surprisingly enjoyable. On the one hand, he directs the film with confidence, delivering its stylish exterior brilliantly well, and making for the upbeat and feel-good vibes throughout. On the other hand, he also manages to insert a message about the Civil Rights Movement in ingenious fashion. Never taking away from the film’s family-friendly and bubbly atmosphere, the central message feels simplified enough, and yet still resonant and relevant, something I did not expect to see going into Hairspray.
And then there’s the music. The cynic in me was trying to resist getting into the groove of this cheesy and overly happy musical, but there’s something so catchy about so many of the songs here that I couldn’t keep myself from tapping my feet and smiling away. A brilliantly original and upbeat soundtrack, this does something that very few musicals have ever managed to do, make the musical numbers entertaining, rapid-paced and relevant to the development of the story, which was amazing to see.
However, it’s not all great. Whilst Hairspray is an undoubtedly feel-good watch, it’s a film that occasionally feels a little too much like style over substance. Whilst the film’s central message is surprisingly effective, I found it a lot harder to care about the fates of individual characters in this film, leaving me often bored with the slower, less upbeat sequences. Fortunately, that’s not the case for a lot of the film, but when we do move away from the music, or some of the film’s best jokes, it all gets a little bland.
Finally, the performances. With the exception of Michelle Pfeiffer’s strong show and John Travolta’s legendarily weird yet entertaining drag act, the acting here isn’t all that great. In the lead role, Nikki Blonsky doesn’t do much to make her character likable over annoying, whilst supporting players including Amanda Bynes, Zac Efron and Brittany Snow all come across as very generic. They do all put their heart and soul into it when it comes to the big musical numbers, but as for the rest of the film, there are a lot of underwhelming performances.
That said, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Hairspray. An excessively happy and feel-good film, I expected my cynicism to hold strong, but the combination of bright colours, stylish fashion, great directing, and an impressive central message had me smiling from ear to ear by the end. The story and performances do often bring down the film as a whole, but it’s still an undoubtedly enjoyable watch, which is why I’m giving it a 6.8.