Just moments into Hairspray, John Waters makes a Hitchcockian cameo as a raincoat-clad flasher with what we’ll call a feces-eating grin — fitting for the man who graced us with actor Divine’s poop-tasting talents in 1972’s Pink Flamingos. Waters’ appearance also signals that just beneath the surface of this squeaky-clean musical beats the heart of a subversive cult filmmaker.
Relentlessly jubilant and entertaining, Hairspray is based on the 2002 Tony-sweeping Broadway hit, which itself was based on Waters’ 1988 movie. This incarnation is loaded with family-friendly cred and marquee names, from Travolta to Zac Efron, but director-choreographer Adam Shankman (Bringing Down the House) still retains some of Waters’ twisted sensibility. In 1962 Baltimore, hefty heroine Tracy Turnblad (plucky newcomer Nikki Blonsky) longs to join the ”nicest kids in town” on the TV dance party The Corny Collins Show. The ”nice kids,” though, don’t like her plus-size kind, or anyone who’s different: Black dancers are relegated to a monthly Negro Day hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). But Tracy, whose spunk is matched by her idealism, picks up some bump-and-grind moves from the black kids and lands a spot on the show. Soon she’s declaring on-air that she’d ”make every day Negro Day!” In the film’s simplistic conceit, racism and fat-phobia are just examples of schoolyard nastiness, and the bullies are Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her stage mother, Velma (Pfeiffer), who seeks to steer kids in ”the white direction” by canceling Negro Day. Tracy, however, turns the beat around: ”If we can’t dance, maybe we should just march!”
The young ensemble burns up the screen, particularly Elijah Kelley (Take the Lead) as Seaweed, who makes the movie’s sexiest argument for racial integration in the showstopper ”Run and Tell That.” Their elders don’t fare as well — Christopher Walken is disarmingly odd as Tracy’s dad Wilbur, but Travolta, as Tracy’s mom Edna, seems to be in a movie all his own. Divine (in the original) and Harvey Fierstein (on Broadway) went for manly-voiced drag, but Travolta affects an overly dainty manner and a Bawlmore accent, as if he were hell-bent on coming off as an actual woman — albeit one with the plasticine head of a Cabbage Patch Kid.
But even Travolta’s bizarre presence — and show-halting duet with Walken, ”(You’re) Timeless to Me” — can’t detract from the joy that unfolds at full-tilt boogie. Sing-along and dance-along extras, self-congratulatory documentaries, and a lovely (yet wisely excised) ballad are fun enough, but this Hairspray needs to be packaged with the original Waters version — so Travolta fans can see how it’s really done. Till then, as Corny Collins says, ”You can fight it, or you can rock out to it.” B+