The camera pans over Baltimore, and in the distance we hear a motorcycle engine starting up -- vroom, vr-vroom. The bass guitar picks up that beat, and the rest of the instruments join in. We zoom into the Turnblad home just in time to see Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) sit up in bed and blink her eyes in perfect sync with the music.
And just like that, less than two minutes into the movie, I knew I was in good hands.
You couldn't ask for a better feel-good movie than Hairspray. The cast is first-rate (with one small and one large exception, which we'll get to shortly), the songs are delightful, and the movie is filled with joy from start to finish.
This is a star-making role for Nikki Blonsky. (Well, it should be, at any rate, but the career history of previous Tracys suggests that Hollywood still doesn't know what to do with a large young woman. Ricki Lake couldn't turn her success in the original John Waters film into anything more than a long-running talk show gig; Marissa Jaret Winokur, the original Broadway Tracy, wound up as the second banana on a Pamela Anderson sitcom.) Blonsky is charming and funny, and I like her singing better than that of Winokur, who was just a bit too pinched and chirpy.
In the supporting role of Seaweed, Elijah Kelley is the movie's other breakout star, taking complete command of the screen during Seaweed's big number, "Run and Tell That;" all of those producers who keep talking about making a Sammy Davis Jr. biopic need look no further for their leading man.
There's Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah and Amanda Bynes and Brittany Snow and Zac Efron and James Marsden -- all of them dead-on perfect in their roles, singing and dancing up a storm. (And Allison Janney, in the non-singing role of Prudy Pingleton, is magnificent.)
Who have I not mentioned? Well, there's Michelle Pfeiffer, who falls flat as Velma Von Tussle; true, her solo number, "(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs," is probably the least interesting of the songs, but Pfeiffer does nothing to sell it, and her big comic scene -- Velma's attempted seduction of Walken's Wilbur Turnblad -- works only because of Walken's impeccable timing and utter obliviousness.
Pfeiffer's is a relatively small role, though; the movie's more serious problem is John Travolta as Edna. He's delightful in the musical numbers -- it is, in fact, a marvelous thing to see how light on his feet he is in that gargantuan fat suit -- but less so in the non-musical scenes, especially in the first half of the movie. Yes, Edna's self-conscious about her weight, but Travolta makes her too downbeaten; she may not want to leave her apartment and face the world, but within that apartment, Edna is in charge, and Travolta misses that entirely. Travolta is also the only actor to attempt a Baltimore accent. I don't know that accent well enough to judge whether his accent is ever any good, but I do know that it's not very consistent; it comes and goes, seemingly at random.
The Marc Shaiman/Scott Wittman songs are a delight, perfect pastiches of early 60s pop, and Shenkman has added just enough movie magic to keep Hairspray from being just a filmed version of the stage show. (There's a particularly inspired bit of cinematic wizardry in Link and Tracy's duets during "Without Love.")
Shenkman occasionally goes a bit overboard with the cross-cutting -- most notably during "Big, Blonde, and Beautiful," where he's zipping back and forth two or three times within a single line of the song -- and a few lyrics get lost in the sound mix during some of the larger ensemble numbers. But he films the dance numbers so that we can see the dancing, a real novelty these days.
Hairspray is great fun, and it's a thrill to watch so many people working at the top of their form. You can't possibly leave the theater without a smile on your face.