In truth, the stage version of Hairspray was easily the best of the recent Broadway behemoths, even if it buried Waters' skewering of WASP panic in the face of black progress beneath thick layers of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia. You could easily walk away from the musical Hairspray thinking that racial segregation in the early '60s wasn't anything that a little blues-infused doo-wop couldn't cure, but the show was mercifully free of The Producers' labored slapstick and Wicked's ponderous self-seriousness. More important, the songs were pretty darn good — a dozen and a half clever, up-tempo numbers styled by composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman after the Top 40 hits of the era (the Angels, Jackie Wilson, et al.). And unlike the songs from Dreamgirls (which charts roughly the same period in American musical history from the other side of the race divide), Shaiman and Wittman's featured an abundance of good old-fashioned soul.
Hairspray the movie musical has been conceived and executed as a faithful record of the stage version, but that's all it is — a recording. Director Adam Shankman shows a lot of know-how when it comes to the placement and movement of bodies, but he hasn't rethought the material in cinematic terms (the way, for example, that Frank Oz did when adapting the similarly stylized Little Shop of Horrors). The result is an odd hybrid that lacks both the rambunctious energy of a live performance and the expressionistic pull of a great movie musical. That leaves the film to survive on its auditory pleasures and the novelty of its stunt casting, most notably John Travolta as Edna, plus-plus-sized mother of plus-sized teen Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky). That most dandyish of ostensibly straight contemporary screen performers, Travolta is oddly tamped-down in a part that calls for the grandiose. Meanwhile, as the movie's vampish villainess Velma Von Tussle, Michelle Pfeiffer plays all of her scenes with such shrill, white-rich-bitch intensity that her lengthy screen hiatus (this is her first live-action role since White Oleander in 2002) doesn't seem to have been quite long enough.