Hairspray [retro review]

“I wish I was at a hootenanny in Harlem.”

The Scoop: 1988 PG, Directed by John Waters and starring Deborah Harry, Sonny Bono and Colleen Fitzpatrick

Tagline: No tagline.

Summary Capsule: Dancing and civil rights movement collide.

Lissa’s Rating: I hate roaches.

Lissa’s Review: You know, sometimes the movies I like aren’t necessarily the best movies. I’m not saying that I don’t like good movies, far from it. But some of the best movies I’ve ever seen — some of the most powerful, the most moving, the most evocative — I’ve only seen once. But some of the movies that are a couple of tiers down are the ones I watch over and over again.

Take Legally Blonde, for instance. (Just the first one, thanks, because the sequel sucked.) It’s not a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but I’d also never call it sheer brilliance. It’s solid for what it is — a smart comedy about a girl who goes to law school for all the wrong reasons. It’s also a movie that I really enjoy, partly because I actually like the message about women in this one, and partly because it’s really, really funny to me. But it’s not a work of genius.

I’d never seen all of Hairspray, just a few minutes here and there. And I certainly didn’t expect genius. But I was really hoping that I’d find another movie to add to my “decent movies that I can enjoy over and over again” collection. It seemed the type; I knew there was dancing and it featured an overweight girl who kicked butt, and it seemed like it was campy and funny and tongue in cheek.

Sadly, I was very much disappointed. It was very boring.

The year is 1962, and the Corny Collins Dance Show is sweeping the nation, or at least the area. (And Corny Collins is the guys’ name, not my qualifier.) Tracy Turnbald (Ricky Lake) and her friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers) are obsessed like the rest of the teens, much to the dismay of their mothers. When plump Tracy actually makes it onto the show as a regular, she becomes an instant hit, immediately turning her mother Edna (Divine) around on the issue. Tracy seizes on her newfound popularity to support integration of blacks and whites, a controversial move that lands her in Special Ed, along with many of the black teenagers. Tracy meets Seaweed (Clayton Prince), who immediately becomes smitten (and vice versa) with Penny. Needless to say, Penny’s mother throws a wonderful engagement party and starts planning the names of her grandchildren… okay, maybe not so much. Add in teen queen Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick), who is vying for the Miss Auto Show title and loses her boyfriend Link to Tracy, and the rich vs. poor theme, and in theory, you’ve got a pretty good formula for a movie, wouldn’t you think?

Like I said, I really WANTED to like Hairspray. I loved the fact that Tracy was overweight and just dealt with it. I wouldn’t say she was completely proud of it, but she refused to be ashamed or accept the idea that she was less of a person because she didn’t meet societal norms of beauty. The integration themes are always interesting, and I thought that the movie dealt with them in a manner appropriate to teenagers. (Not that they watered them down, but the teenagers protesting actually acted like teenagers in their logic and strategy.) Although the acting seemed more like a play than a movie to me, it wasn’t like it was bad, and really, while it was cheesy and campy it wasn’t a bad movie. But I was still bored.

I think part of it was that I was expecting a musical. I didn’t realize the original version wasn’t a musical, and I was disappointed. I mean, I know it’s very odd for people to burst into song all the time, but I like it, okay? And I can see why they made Hairspray into a musical — it’s perfect for one. So the lack of snazzy, catchy, can’t-get-em-out-of-your-head songs definitely contributed. And maybe part of it was I rented Hairspray during the week leading up to the release of the last Harry Potter book, because I really was excited about the book and nothing was going to compare. But I spent half the movie reading an Entertainment Weekly, not books 1-6, so I can’t be convinced that’s all it, either.

I don’t know. It just didn’t thrill me. Maybe the corny dialogue, maybe the campiness wasn’t my style, maybe it was the fact I couldn’t drink while watching it. I will rent the 2007 version when it comes out, because I would like to see it as a musical and with John Travolta and Allison Janey playing some of the mother roles. I can’t even come out and say I can’t see why people like it, because it had all kinds of potential. I can see why this movie deserves its cult status. It just didn’t ring any bells with me. (Although the Beatnik chick is kind of entertaining.)

Oh well. Maybe you’ll have better luck. But it does have a beat, and occasionally you can dance to it.

Any other Arrested Development fans having Motherboy flashbacks?


  • There was a scene filmed where Tracey finds cockroaches in her hair (which was based on the urban legend about a girl whose brain is eaten by cockroaches that were living in her beehive hairdo). While it never made it into the final cut it does explain all the references to roaches in the latter part of the film.
  • The Tilted Acres scenes were shot at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I only put this in here because I’m from right around there and think it’s cool.
  • Remade on the Broadway stage in 2002 as a musical starring Harvey Fierstein (and later, Bruce Vilanch, ‘Michael McKean’ and John Pinette) in the role of Edna Turnblad (played in the film by Divine) and ‘Marissa Jaret Winoker’ in the role of Tracy Turnblad (played in the film by Ricki Lake)
  • All of Tracy’s hair-do’s were Ricki Lake’s actual hair, not a wig as is popular belief.
  • Alliteration central!
  • Sonny Bono. I still think that’s funny for some reason.
  • Tons of music anachronisms, which I’d never catch myself.
  • Penny’s mother is officially psycho.

Groovy Quotes:

Wilbur: Tracy, we all have responsibilities in life. You may think owning the Hardy-Har joke shop is all drudgery; unwrapping dribble glasses, checking doggy doo, but I wuv it.

Penny Pingleton: I wish I was at a hootenanny in Harlem.

Tammy: Please wait outside. The council will now meet in secret, debate your personality flaws, and come to a final decision.

Beatnik Chick: When I’m high, I AM Odetta. Let’s get naked and smoke.

Tracy Turnblad: I’m an integrationist. We shall overcome someday.
Beatnik Chick: Not with that hair, you won’t.

Velma Von Tussle: Hey you. Can I ask you a personal question?
Edna Turnblad: No, you may not…

If You Liked This Movie, Try These:

  • Hairspray (2007)
  • Shag
  • Grease

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: That Thing You Do! | Mutant Reviewers From Hell

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