Hairspray is one of the quirkiest musicals I have ever watched. The story centers around Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), a peppy, “pleasantly plump” girl whose biggest dream is to star on the Corny Collins Show, a teenage dance show funded by Ultra Clutch Hairspray. Heavier girls don’t usually become dancing stars, but Tracy’s optimism and friendliness enable her to fight not only to make her own dreams come true, but to help others achieve their dreams as well. Though this might seem like a silly movie at first glance, it tackles issues of racism, bullying and self-confidence in ways that will stick with you long after the credits have rolled past the screen.
The biggest issue addressed in Hairspray is racial integration, the inclusion of people of all colors in all areas of society. While schools were desegregated by law back in the 50’s, by the 60’s when Hairspray takes place, it is clear that black citizens do not have equal rights. While The Corny Collins Show might put on a pretty face, such insiduous lines in “The Nicest Kids in Town” as, “Nice white kids who like to lead the way, and once a month we have our Negro Day” show that television was still very much a whites-only zone. Even when Ms. Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) and the African American stars perform, the commercials they must push are for such things as Nap-Away, a shampoo to make naturally kinky African American hair more straight, like white folks’.
For Tracy Turnblad, even though she has grown up in a country rife with racism, such hate doesn’t seem to be a concept for her. It’s implied that the reason for this is that she has been marginalized by society too because of her weight. She knows what it’s like to be underestimated and not given the same chances as her more svelte classmates. While the hardships she faces are not nearly on the level of her black classmates, it goes to show that race is not the real issue here: hate is. People can always find something to hate in other people, be it their size, their beliefs or the color of their skin.
Just because the odds are stacked against you though, doesn’t mean you give up. In “Run and Tell That”, Tracy and her best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes) meet a confident young man named Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) who sings of how silly it is that society can’t see his worth, because he and his friends are obviously awesome. Tracy is inspired by Seaweed and his friends, and they in turn are inspired by her, leading the group to eventually stand up in protest, fighting for racial integration. It just goes to show that your own confidence can inspire not only you, but countless others as well.
One of the sweetest story arcs is the budding romance between Penny and Seaweed. From the moment they met there was a connection, such a strong one that getting together made all the sense in the world to them though society said otherwise. When Motormouth Maybelle sees the two of them holding hands, she tells them, “Well, love is a gift, a lot of people don’t remember that. So, you two better brace yourselves for a whole lotta ugly comin’ at you from a never-ending parade of stupid.” Being together will probably never be easy for them because of the blind prejudice of others, but that does not weaken their love.
Hairspray‘s music is excellent from beginning to end. Most songs were taken or adapted from the original 2002 Broadway musical, though some, like “Ladies’ Choice” and “Come So Far” were written for the film. Almost all of the songs are fun and upbeat, with quirky, intelligent lyrics that stick with you. Themes range from young, twitterpated love (“I Can Hear The Bells”) to the enduring, time tested love found in marriage (“Timeless To Me”), songs to build self-confidence (“Big, Blonde and Beautiful”) to petty high-school rivalries (“The New Girl in Town”).
While almost every song is Hairspray‘s repertoire is happy, there is one appropriately solemn song sung by Maybelle during the protest march. “I Know Where I’ve Been” reminds us that this fight goes beyond the right of black people to be seen on television; this is about their right to be treated as equal citizens. The battle has been long and costly and continues even after this tale from the 1960’s. There is no doubt though that this is a battle worth fighting. As Maybelle says, we must, “Use that pride in our hearts to lift us up to tomorrow, ’cause just to sit still would be a sin.”
Hairspray accomplishes what most movies can’t, bringing lasting depth to an overall corny movie. The corniness is part of the charm, leading you to watch Hairspray again and again for the laughs and catchy lyrics. You fall in love with each of the characters, chuckling at their goof-ups and cheering them on when things get tough. It may seem cheesy and simplistic to say that all you need to stop all the hatred and injustice in the world is love, but Hairspray reminds us how wonderfully simple yet simply priceless love is. If you want something funny with substance, a fluffy treat with some dollops of wisdom thrown in, then Hairspray is the movie for you.