The 21st century, for better or worse, has become the era of the remake. Got a film or TV show from a bygone era that’s gathering dust, or something so beloved in the public eye that it’s always been seen as untouchable? Hey, let’s revamp it and stick Kevin Hart in it. (I’m looking at you, Jumanji and, bewilderingly, the upcoming remake of French tragi-comedy The Intouchables.) I’ve always been somewhat unfazed by remakes, wavering somewhere between eye-rolling reluctance and, god forbid, actual excitement at the prospect of films being given a millennial update. But while I’ve watched some remakes that have seemed, on paper, bound for disaster, such as Channing Tatum/Jonah Hill’s Jump Street franchise, the all-female Ghostbusters, and, in a way, Rocky spin-off Creed be lauded for their innovation, I’ve always been a little hurt that one remake hasn’t seen the same praise – the remake of John Waters’ Hairspray, which celebrates its 10th anniversary today.
Before you begin your rumblings, I’ll happily note that I harbour no ill feelings towards Waters’ original Hairspray – in fact, it’s far superior to this overly saccharine, squeaky clean star-studded musical. But does that stop me from loving this film more than a normal person should? Absolutely not. While it’s easy to love trash just for the sake of being trash – how else could I possibly have brought myself to watch Showgirls more than once? – I also believe that there’s more to this film than meets the eye.
While Waters’ original Hairspray was one big wink to the camera, showcasing the director’s camp and darkly twisted sensibilities packaged up in easily his most mainstream film, 2007 Hairspray wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s the film’s earnestness that endears it to a viewer – where else does one find a song that contains Zac Efron singing the line “Tracy I’m in love with you/No matter what you weigh” into a chocolate bar as a microphone, and a juxtaposition of Amanda Bynes professing her love for her black boyfriend with him and his friend passionately chanting “Sweet freedom is our goal!” as they smuggle her out of the house of her deranged pious mother? Yes, really.
2007’s Hairspray takes the delirium of Waters’ original and turns it up to 100, while simultaneously smoothing out some of his film’s rougher and unrulier edges. They’re not entirely gone, mind – there are glimpses of his wit when Amanda Bynes delivers the line “plastic little spastic” about an enemy, and when a former dancer on the Corny Collins Show announces that she’ll be taking an unplanned sabbatical… of nine months. And it’s not as if the politic agenda of the original film is completely sanitised – if anything, it’s actually brought even further into the mix here, thanks to great performances by Elijah Kelley as Seaweed Stubbs, and the always-commanding Queen Latifah as his mother and Motormouth Maybelle, the host of Negro Day (the one day of the week where the black kids of Baltimore are given the honour of dancing on TV).
In an age when white celebrities are constantly called out for either showing complete ignorance of matters of racism and privilege, or displaying fake wokeness, it’s remarkable how well the film’s side plot of protagonist Tracy Turnblad trying to dismantle segregation so that she can dance with her friends on TV holds up.
As a young fat girl (another “issue” that could be played for laughs but is treated with respect – “You can’t stop my knife and fork when I see a Christmas ham” sings Tracy’s mother Edna in the film’s finale), Tracy is shown to understand what it’s like to be sidelined because of the way she looks. In fact, it’s more than that – she doesn’t help her black friends because she knows what they’re going through, she does it because she doesn’t.
Characters like Seaweed and Maybelle are resigned to the fact that they may never get better than Negro Day, before Tracy comes along and changes all that. But Hairspray never plays the White Saviour narrative – while Tracy inspires hope in the Negro Day crew, she never tries to take their struggle as her own. She’s just as happy to take part in their protest in respectful silence while Latifah sings the film’s most sombre and powerful number, “I Know Where I’ve Been”.
Digging into Hairspray’s handling of some serious issues like fatphobia and racism may not make it sound like the most uplifting musical in the world. But you’d be wrong – just like its drag-wearing star John Travolta in numerous musical numbers, it's surprisingly light on its feet. Hairspray’s one of those films that looks like it was as fun to make as it is to watch – from Travolta to Christopher Walken as Tracy’s endearing joke salesman father, to Michelle Pfeiffer and Brittany Snow as the gloriously villainous mother-daughter duo Velma and Amber Von Tussle, everyone really gives it their all.
It’s also interesting now, in a year where we’ve seen him in the highs (the surprisingly good Bad Neighbours franchise) and lows (Dirty Grandpa and yet another recent remake, Baywatch) to notice Zac Efron’s comic chops as he plays one of his now-trademark male bimbos who are young, dumb and full of songs.
So Hairspray may not be counted alongside such modern musicals as La La Land. And hell, it may not even be “so bad, it’s good” enough to be in the same league as Mamma Mia. But peel back the layers of this oddball musical, a remake that never really needed to be made, and you might be surprised to find that there’s actually more to the surface than meets the eye.
While it’ll never age like a fine wine, Hairspray is more akin to a cold Lambrini – it’s fizzy, sweet, refreshing fun, a taste of a bygone era that for some reason you’ll want to keep coming back to.