Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Movie Review: Hairspray Live!

Stars: 3 out of 5
Pros: Good story told with amazing performances
Cons: Some story issues late; audio mix was bad
The Bottom Line:
Tracy wants to dance
Entertaining musical
With serious flaws

You Won’t Want to Stop This Fun Beat Despite Issues

I saw the big screen version of the musical Hairspray back in 2007 and wasn’t super impressed, so I wasn’t thrilled when NBC announced that Hairspray Live! would be the next in their live musical franchise.  Still, I decided to give it a chance.  I liked it better than I remember liking the movie, yet the technically problems kept it from being as good as it could have been.

The musical is set in 1962 Baltimore and centers on Tracy Turnblad (Maddie Bailio).  Like others in her city, she loves the Corny Collins Show, and rushes home from school each day to watch the dancing and singing.  When Corny (Derek Hough) announces that the show is looking for a new dancer, she plans to audition over the objection of her mother Edna (Harvey Fierstein).  And why does her mother not want her to audition?  Tracy is larger than the average teen or dancer on the show, and her mother doesn’t want her to get hurt when people comment on her weight.

Tracy goes down and auditions anyway, even managing to land the place as a dancer on the show.  She quickly becomes a hit, and begins to use her newfound fame to argue against Negro Day.  She doesn’t think it is right that there is one day a month when African Americans are allowed to dance on the show.  She thinks they should be allowed on the show every day.  Just want will her radical ideas unleash on the show and the city?

Yes, we have a musical comedy dealing with the subject of racism.  But here’s the thing, it manages to find the perfect balance between the musical comedy and the dark, serious subject of racism.  It never once belittles the wrongs that were done, but it never focuses on them either.  Since it picks a lighter subject of African Americans not being on TV as much as white students instead of the plentiful and more serious issues that African Americans were facing at the time, the tone is fine.  It also never preaches.  In other words, it reminds us of ills in our society at that time without forgetting that its purpose is to entertain.

And entertain it does.  Being a live production of the stage version of the musical (admittedly with some tweaks to the stage show), this isn’t a full on movie, and at times the sets are obviously created for a live TV production.  But I didn’t care.  It was a lot of fun, and some of their filming was very inventive.  Additionally, they use some outdoor sets for some scenes to wonderful effect.  You’ll soon forget that you are watching a filmed stage play and instead get lost in the story.

But there are some things glossed over in the second half of the movie.  It makes the plot a little rough for those of us who don’t know it super well.  I had to read a summary of the original to fill in the blanks in the action, and it left me scratching my head at the choices they made to cut things since it led to confusion.  You’d think that 3 hours (less commercials, of course) would be long enough to include scenes to fully develop the plot.

On the other hand, the cast is amazing.  Maddie Baillio is a new comer, but I predict a long career in front of her.  She easily held her own with the likes of Kristen Chenoweth, Jennifer Hudson, and Ariana Grande.  While I’m familiar with Derek Hough from Dancing with the Stars, I was very impressed with his singing and acting.  I know it’s tradition that a man play Tracy’s mom, but I still don’t like it.  Having said that, I thought Harvey Fierstein did better than John Goodman did in the big screen version.

I remember the big screen version having quite a few sexual innuendos, which bothered me quite a bit.  I didn’t notice them here, so maybe that was something they put in that version of the musical.

However, I can’t be completely certain.  I had a hard time hearing the lyrics when the actors were singing.  And I’m not talking about the mike that cut out during the opening number.  I’m talking about a mixing issue where the instruments overpowered the singers.  It’s a shame because I could tell from their vocals and the performances that I was missing out on some amazing songs.  I will admit I did not buy the DVD and am commenting only on the broadcast on NBC.  And I seem to be the only person who has commented on this issue, so hopefully it is just me.  But considering how much of the story is sung, that’s an issue.

Despite some flaws, I’m glad I watched Hairspray Live!  While this will never be my favorite musical, rewatching it gave me a new appreciation for the story told here.

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