I Know Where I’ve Been

by Alan Rapp on July 20, 2007

in Movie Reviews 

  • Title: Hairspray
  • IMDb: link

“I wish every day was Negro Day.”

hairspray-poster

Hairspray is a toe-tappin’ good time with a strong cast, good music, and plenty of fun.  It would be easy to dismiss it as simply a feel good story and the discovery of first-time actress Nikki Blonksy (who was found, in all places, at a Coldstone Creamery).  But beneath the film’s smiles, laughs, dances, and shakes, there’s a story about acceptance and struggle, about a willingness to sacrifice for doing what you believe is right, no matter what it may cost you.

Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is your average teen who daydreams in school about being a celebrity.  Tracy and her best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes) race home every day to catch the Corny Collins Show on television.  Hosted by Corny Colins (James Marsden) the dance show is the hippest thing in all of Baltimore.

From here the story breaks into two parts, that are surprisingly wll meshed together.  The first involves Tracy earning a spot on the show despite her size and the concerns of her mother Edna (John Travolta), her crush on Link Larkin (Zac Efron) and her hopes to win Miss Hairspray against the beautiful but malelovent Amber Van Tussle (Brittany Snow).

The other story of the film is the segregation of Baltimore in general, and the Corny Collins Show in particular.  Managed by Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) the show promotes 50’s values and separate but equal.  Once a month the show allows Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) to host “Negro Day,” which is becoming a little too popular with the kids in Velma’s opinion.

The stories merge when “Negro Day” is cancelled and Tracy must decide whether to stand-up for her new friends or play it safe and keep her spot as a star of the show.

Performance wise the film is a treat.  Each actor is well-placed.  Blonsky steals the show in a terrific and almost unbelievable performance by a complete unknown.  Bynes is terrific in the role of the slightly-spazzy best friend; Bynes, who doesn’t have the moves or voice of some of the other performers is used well here for her comic timing and simple but terrific reactions to the situations she finds herself in.

Both Snow and Pfeiffer are well-cast as the villainous vixens in the film, and Allison Janey puts in a nice small role as Penny’s over-religious mother.  Also worth noting are Efron, Marsden – who is finally given a role to show-off his voice, Taylor Parks, Elijah Kelley, and Christopher Walken, all of who provide wonderful moments both acting and singing.

My only complaint with the cast is John Travolta trussed up in drag and a fat suit to play Edna Turnblad.  No matter how good Travolta is, he’s always John Travolta in a fat suit rather than a real character in the film.  I know this might of sounded like a good idea, wait a moment, no, it never sounded like a good idea.  In a film like Mrs. Doubtfire Robin Williams can get away with the suit because we’re in on the joke that it’s a guy pretending to be a woman.  Here, for the character of Edna to work, we have to accept Travolta as a woman.  There’s just not enough Hollywood magic around to make that happen.

I haven’t mentioned Queen Latifah or the music of the film yet.  Let me do both here.  Latifah shines in the small supporting role and gives the film deeper meaning in her performance of “I Know Where I’ve Been,” for my money the best song in a film with quite a few nice numbers.  If Blonsky provides the heart of the film this song provides its soul.  The march which occurs late in the film reminded me of a time when this country banded together, united, to stand up against injustice.  I don’t know where along the way we lost this sense of unity, purpose, and righteousness, but we need to find it again.

Is it a little simplistic to believe that dancing can overcome segregation and racism.  Perhaps, but also remember that entertainment and sports have long led the way in helping to break down color barriers.  And even if it is a little hard to believe, it’s a wonderful dream.  Here’s a film with a good message and some great songs.  Other than Nancy Drew (read that review) there haven’t been many nice family films this summer, but here’s one the whole family can enjoy.

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