Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
I still love, love, love this movie. I am a huge fan of the movie musical genre, and there have been few great ones since Rob Marshall’s Chicago. Dreamgirls was OK but lacked energy, and 2005’s The Producers was stagy and flat. Meryl Streep impressed in both Mamma Mia and Into the Woods, but we really haven’t a lot of great live-action movie musicals as of late. I was a little worried about this movie when it came out for two major reasons… One, it was based on a Broadway musical based on a movie. Two, John Travolta plays a woman. These two worries came to pass, however, when I saw the finished product in July 2007, and I’ve been a fan ever since. The film works on almost every level!
In ’60s Baltimore, Maryland, high school student Tracy rushes home every day after school to watch the Corny Collins Show, a program that allows kids her age to dance their hearts out. She’s in love with one of the young crooners on the show, Link, and she jumps at the chance to audition for it. Tracy makes it on the show, and she uses the little power she has to integrate black people with white people, and she also makes an effort to get her mom Edna out of the house and find herself in this new ’60s world!
A film like this makes it or breaks it based off the songs themselves, and there isn’t a stinker in the bunch. All serve their purposes in the storyline, and none acts as filler. All the major characters get their own numbers, and there’s never a dull moment. My favorites are the big opening “Good Morning Baltimore,” the fast-moving “Ladies Choice,” and the absolutely delightful “Welcome to the ‘60s!”
The amount of star power in this movie is staggering, and all the actors have a lot of fun with this material. John Travolta may have the most fun of all, shedding everything we knew of him in his fearless performance as Edna, who goes through a tremendous arc throughout the movie. While he doesn’t really change his voice much (probably intentional), he immerses himself into the role, and after awhile, you start to forget it’s him! Nikki Blonsky is infectious, dancing her way into a tremendous film debut (where has she been??). Michelle Pfeiffer makes a fine turn as the villain Velma, icy and seductive. Christopher Walken, who re-unites with Pfeiffer in a scene that reverses a memorable scene in Batman Returns, is a joy to watch singing and dancing in a handful of fun sequences. And Zac Efron… ahh, what can I say? The actors are terrific!
Hairspray was directed by Adam Shankman, whose other work as a director includes the mediocre Bringing Down the House, Cheaper by the Dozen 2, and the 2012 musical disappointment, Rock of Ages. His talent is not in directing but in choreography, as he choreographed all the dance numbers in my favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Once More With Feeling.” Scenes of dialogue in this film are fine; it’s the dance numbers that make the movie work as well as it does. Shankman knows his weaknesses and keeps the best of his talents front and center!
Hairspray is a movie that’s not trying to do anything but give the audience a fun time at the movies. And you know what — sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that. This film continues to excite me all these years later… to the point that I have to end each paragraph in exclamation points. It’s that much fun!
Watching Like a Writer
This musical is so entertaining and funny and breezy that you tend to forget it’s about a serious subject matter: racial divisions in the early 1960s. The film got me to thinking about how to treat the issue of race in my fiction, something I have struggled with over the years and which I feel I need to pay more attention to. Whether you’re writing a science fiction epic or a contemporary literary novel, it’s important to think about how race plays a role in each and every story you write.
Look at your current work-in-progress and examine how race is handled. Do you have a diverse set of characters? Why or why not?