"Hairspray" is here and musicals are back, baby, and it's happy news — unless you think, as I do, that fatuously upbeat generic pop music combined with dances edited by a Benihana chef are not an occasion for rejoicing.
The movie isn't awful. It gets more involving as it goes along, and the candyland colors are a hoot. It's going to be a big hit. But "Hairspray" taps into so little of what I cherish about the original John Waters movie - and movie musicals in general - that I can't sit back and let you enjoy it mindlessly.
In the 1988 Waters version, the so-called "Prince of Puke" combined two of his fetishes: fat freaks and a tacky '60s teen dance showcase in which the hairstyles helped erode the ozone layer. Waters concocted a satire of liberal teen-message movies by making his chubby heroine a champion of other outcasts – Negroes – and got a PG rating. Bliss!
The director of the new film, Adam Shankman, doesn't seem in on the joke. It's true that ironic love of kitsch has moved from the gay subculture to the mainstream, but that doesn't account for the movie's marshmallow blandness.
> Photos: "Hairspray" In New York
Except when he dances — with grace, even in a fat suit — John Travolta's Edna is a joke without a punchline.
I'm crazy about musicals and know more about them than most heterosexual males. And "Hairspray" doesn't make me optimistic about their future. It's too synthetic. The movie's songs, from the Broadway show, don't connect with the emotions that gave birth to the original story.
You can appreciate its deficiencies when you compare it to another transvestite musical, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," a freak's lament with soul — but not mass-audience material.
Terrible as much of it is, the hip-hop group Outkast's musical "Idlewild" is an original stab at mixing music videos with old-fashioned dance musicals. But the dancing is also Benihana-ed.
"Chicago" works like gangbusters and is all of a piece — each number erupts in its own theatrical dreamspace. But good as they are, Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere aren't singers or dancers. They're movie stars who could manage to sing and dance.
You're not watching performers with something pure and unique to express. Not like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly, or early Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl" or Liza Minelli in "Cabaret." To watch a gifted performer bloom without being upstaged by a chopsocky editor: That's what musicals are about. That's what drew audiences once. That's the only thing that will draw them back.