Last time I was at my parents’ house I had a serious hankering for some musicals (I had listened to my musical soundtrack playlist the whole bus ride there). I remembered that somewhere in the depths of my family’s amassed dvd collection lay both Hairspray and Chicago, both of which I’d been meaning to revisit. The former I popped out last week, and the latter I’ll be viewing at some later date when I’m in the mood. I followed up Hairspray with Shake, Rattle & Rock!, a made-for-tv Allan Arkush movie that I had started weeks ago and never finished. Its early introduction of television discrimination against black singers made me think it’d be a good pairing, though that turned out to be a more minor part of the story than I anticipated. Still a fun double feature though, and ahead I shall discuss the relative merits of each film!
Persistently upbeat and an extremely talented dancer, chubby teen Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is delighted to be living in a more open-minded age as the 1960’s transform her beloved city of Baltimore, MD. She dreams of becoming famous and eventually lands a role as a dancer on a local tv show aimed at young people who dig rock n’ roll. While the show’s lead dancer Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) resents an unconventional girl like Tracy stealing the spotlight, her manipulative mother, station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), is outraged at Tracy’s mission to integrate the station so that skilled black students at her school can join the show. There’s lots of singing and teen romance and backstage conniving and body positivity and oversimplification of race issues and silly jokes and DANCING OH SO MUCH DANCING.
I remember in my sophomore year of high school a lot of my peers (especially the wealthier ones) had big fancy sweet 16 parties with candle lighting ceremonies and expensive dresses and huge crowds. Me? My parents took me and a few of my closest girlfriends into New York to see Hairspray with, if memory serves, some of the original cast still intact. It’s one of the best birthdays I ever had. So, naturally, I was PSYCHED for the movie, and I’ve gotta say I think it’s one of the better stage musical-to-film adaptations. Revisiting (and, naturally, live-tweeting) was super fun because gosh darn if it isn’t just a jolly time. The music is catchy as hell and, say what you will about Adam Shankman, but he can choreograph and capture the hell out of an exciting musical number. That sequence on the bus? Thrilling. Well, all of “Run and Tell That”, really, since that’s my favorite song AND the main time Elijah Kelley gets to show off his hot skills. It also helps that most of the film is imbued with candy-colored costumes and sets, creating a hyped-up 60’s wonderland that perfectly suits the lead character’s gleeful energy.
Story-wise, Hairspray does have some problems, though I think the whole “fat girl likes to dance and then finds love” angle is handled pretty well. Tracy is shown as loving herself for who she is, never trying to lose weight (except one lyric about being “hungry for something that I can’t eat”) or change for other people. In the end she gets the hot popular guy and is set to become famous, simply because she’s awesome and has supportive family/friends. But the other plotline about segregation is sort of weird, mostly because it oversimplifies race issues and also has that tired “white savior” angle. BUT it also talks about how black musicians set the standards for a lot of white musicians who stole their songs and style, and it showcases a lot of really talented black singers/dancers, including Queen Latifah who is THE BEST. And considering it’s primarily a happy-go-lucky kind of musical, I can’t expect insightful narratives about race, really. I haven’t seen the original Waters film in a while so I don’t remember how it’s handled in that. The other frustrating thing is John Travolta, who is obviously a great singer and (at times) fun actor, but I remember there being a lot of controversy about his portrayal of a female character. It’s tough because no one could fill Divine’s shoes, obviously, and no one wants an asshole Scientologist playing an overly realistic woman and totally ignoring the context of drag culture. I don’t know, it’s not really something I’m informed about so I wasn’t as offended as I know some others were, though it’s too bad they couldn’t have had Harvey Fierstein back. The third thing I thought would be a problem was Zac Efron, but dammit he’s actually really funny and likable as popular teen singer Link Larkin.
Ok wow I could go on about this movie forever but let’s stop. Hairspray is so much giddy fun I can look past most of its negative aspects, and that CAST, my GOODNESS, just adds to the pleasure. Michelle Pfeiffer gets to be super hot all the time, duh, and Christopher Walken shows off his dancing skills (what a pro!) and Amanda Bynes reminds me why I always liked her, and James Marsden justifies my crush on him and, best of all, Nikki Blonsky charms the pants off every single person- in her first film role! Adorable. I wish she would get super famous already.
So I started watching Shake, Rattle & Rock! on a whim a while ago and was instantly reeled in by the incredibly cute and fun credits sequence, featuring a young Renee Zellweger as a hip 1950s teen dancing around her room and singing along to “The Girl Can’t Help It”. I realized maybe my favorite thing is when movies open with girls singing along to songs in their bedrooms? Like in Adventures in Babysitting! Anyway, the movie follows Renee’s character Susan as she dreams of a way out of her small town, hoping the rock band she’s formed with her friends will give her an opportunity. After dancing on a local music show that also brought in a teenage doo wop singing group, Susan is chastised by her backward-thinking mother. The more the teens of the town try to express themselves through music, the more their strict (and racist) mothers (led by Mary Woronov!) try to ban it. Eventually rock and roll as an entity is put on a televised trial, with wacky music-loving host Danny Klay (Howie Mandel) defending and the moms prosecuting. And yes, it is loosely inspired by the 1956 film of the same name.
Dealing with some of the same issues as Hairspray (racism/segregation, teen dance shows, parents just not understanding), and sporting a great soundtrack of its own, Shake, Rattle & Rock! turned out to be the perfect follow-up. It’s definitely in the same vein as Rock n’ Roll High School– hell, half the cast is the same- so I’m catching on to what Arkush’s strengths are. The story is super simple, with little depth of character and little actual conflict. But there’s great music, with Zellweger faux-rocking out (that’s not her voice, right?) and awesome performances by R&B group For Real as a cappella quartet The Sirens. And I loved that there’s a wise-cracking teen lady who plays saxophone! I relate to that!
I dig the cast and the pro-rock and roll storyline, especially since the music is so fun, but the romantic subplot is really dumb and I hated that it ended with Susan driving off with whats-his-name Old Greaser Guy. The strongest aspect of the film is definitely Siren lead singer Sireena’s story, as she and her band combat both racial prejudices as well as parental disapproval. Her mother gave up a singing career of her own, and she doesn’t want her daughter reaching for unachievable goals, but she eventually supports her talent and their story wraps up really nicely post-credits. Overall it’s just an enjoyable, easy-to-like movie that had me dancing around almost as much as Hairspray. ALMOST.