I have to admit to approaching the 2007 remake of 'Hairspray' with some trepidation. As a big fan of John Waters' original 1987 cult classic, I just couldn't imagine how a big-budget, Hollywood-ized musical version of such a subversive treat could be anything but a complete bastardization. How could the filmmakers possibly retain the same scrappy, left-of-center sensibility of the original when John Travolta's fat suit alone probably cost more than the entire budget of the original movie?
Seemingly against all odds, however, I found 'Hairspray' to be an an exuberant, imaginative and utterly delightful concoction -- the rare "re-imagining" that completely retains the spirit of the original film, while refashioning it for a whole new generation. I would even go so far as to say that I prefer it to the original. Nothing has been lost in the translation from screen to stage and back again -- in fact, much has been gained.
Adapted for the stage by Leslie Dixon (who also wrote the screenplay for this film version), she wisely hews to the same basic narrative structure as Waters' film. This is still the wonderfully whimsical and idealized tale of a big girl with an even bigger dream: to integrate her beloved Corny Collins Show in the racially-charged '60s. But now, armed with the freedom to break out into song and dance, Dixon is able to give even greater voice to Waters' original themes and intent, and the effect is liberating. From the very first scene of the film -- a boisterous little number called "Hello Baltimore!" -- we are thrust right into a fully-realized pop universe that's able to go places Waters never could. As we watch new lead Nikki Blonsky rush through the streets and sing her song with all the vibrancy and beauty of a rainbow, it's like watching the very spirit of the original film fully unleashed -- and the manic energy never stops throughout the rest of the film's 117 minutes.
I wasn't sure how the film's use of period '60s songs would work in the context of a musical, but wunderkind composer Marc Shaiman has done it again. It's no surprise that he won a Tony for his work on the Broadway version -- the songs perfectly blend the theatricality of a musical while still retaining the essence of '60s do-wop, R&B and the famous girl groups of the period.
The cast, meanwhile, is a sheer delight -- a potent mix of big-name stars and a host of talented newcomers who all present the material perfectly. While the singing and dancing talents of Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken and John Travolta (taking over the Divine role of Tracy's mother Edna) are a given, they're given a run for their money by the young ones. Making her feature film debut, Blonsky is an absolute find -- a natural-born performer who carries the entire film on her small little shoulders as if she's an old pro. I was also blown away by Elijah Kelley in a smaller role as Seaweed, who is such an amazing physical presence that I replayed his scenes two or three times, just to marvel. Even current "It" stars like Zac Efron (as Tracy's unlikely love interest, Link Larson), Brittany Snow and Amanda Bynes shine, bringing an impressive gravity to their reputations as one-dimensional teen idols.
'Hairspray' is also a triumph for director Adam Shankman. To be honest, I've not been a fan of his previous films (which have included such banal, forgettable comedies like 'The Pacifier,' 'Cheaper by the Dozen 2' and 'Bringing Down the House'), but here he announces himself as a musical force to be reckoned with. Also a choreographer, Shankman reportedly had to campaign to get 'Hairspray,' but it's clearly a perfect marriage of his sensibilities and style. His use of fluid camera movies, impeccable staging and a great eye for arresting visual metaphor is top notch. 'Hairspray' is so alive with such a love of the form that, after this, I'm genuinely excited to see what Shankman does next.
If you're wondering if my enthusiasm for 'Hairspray' might be influenced by some sort of predilection for musicals, let it be known that I'm not a huge fan of the genre. There are very few examples that I would rank even close to my favorite films, so no one was more surprised than myself at how much I admired 'Hairspray.' It's the rare movie of its type that transcends the limitations of its form to present something truly universal. I would honestly put 'Hairspray' alongside such legendary movie musicals as 'Grease,' 'The Sound of Music' and 'Singin' in the Rain.' It's the equivalent of joy burned on celluloid, and simply made me feel good again to go to the movies. Trust me -- even if you hate musicals, you may find it impossible to resist the charms of 'Hairspray.'
As New Line's very first next-gen release, expectations are unusually high for 'Hairspray.' Simply put, it has to be great, or the studio will be seen as not putting their best foot forward in the high-def sweepstakes. Of course, given New Line's fine track record on standard-def DVD, few are expecting 'Hairspray' to be anything less than top-tier video quality, and I'm happy to glad to report that our faith wasn't misplaced -- the picture quality on this disc looks pretty dang fabulous.
New Line presents the film in 1080p/VC-1 encode at the film's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio (nice and wide for all those big dance numbers), and it's a bright and colorful presentation that still retains an appealing naturalism. 'Hairspray' is awash in bold primaries, and color saturation is supple and solid. I was initially concerned hues might be over-pumped and smear and bleed, but thankfully that's not a problem. This is most apparent with the wonderfully-realized production design and costumes -- even the most subtle variations of color are readily apparent. Fleshtones are warm and realistic, too.
The level of detail is also almost uniformly excellent, with the image always appearing sharp, textured and full of great depth. In fact, it can look so good that it makes the few uses of really bad CGI painfully obvious (mostly in the long overhead shots of Baltimore, such as the opening credit sequence). The source is also pristine, with deep blacks and excellent shadow delineation. Likewise, the encode boasts a very nice and smooth sheen, with almost no apparent compression issues. (In fact, I only spotted one -- some brief banding right in the first shot of the film, just as the camera pulls out of a mass of CGI clouds. Otherwise, 'Hairspray' is solid as a rock.)
I do have one complaint, however. It's actually an issue I've had with an increasing number of next-gen new releases -- contrast is not overly blown out, per se (whites don't actually bloom), but the entire upper range of the grayscale looks a bit too bright. It's not severe, but it does cause the sense of depth to plateau at times, where I would have liked a bit more pop (this is especially evident in outdoor scenes). Otherwise, 'Hairspray' is a great first Blu-ray effort from New Line, and I can't wait to see what they've got for us next.
Not only is 'Hairspray' New Line's first-ever high-def title, but it has also provided me with a couple of thrilling personal home theater firsts. Not only have I finally upgraded my rig to support true DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio decoding, but New Line has produced a DTS-MA track for 'Hairspray' that's a full 7.1 channels to boot. As such, I was really ready to rev up my system and take it for a kick-ass ride, and even if 'Hairspray' is not a big action flick like 'Transformers,' it delivers its own brand of musical thrills that make excellent use of the full capabilities of multichannel high-res audio.
'Hairspray,' of course, is all about the songs, so appropriately they dominate this track. The sense of fullness and presence to the expanded rear soundfield is fantastic. Right from the opening number, the difference in the upgrade to 7.1 is noticeable. Just doing a few A/B compares between the 7.1 and a downmixed 5.1 (via my receiver) easily revealed the difference -- movement of sounds behind the listener are fuller and seamless. I was also highly impressed with the attention to detail -- discrete effects and individual instruments/vocals are often directed to various areas of the soundfield, and it's just a gas to immerse yourself in the mix regardless of the visuals. I used to think 5.1 channels were enough for even the best home theater, but hearing a track like 'Hairspray,' I'm now totally spoiled.
Tech specs are also fully up to snuff. Unlike so many home theater mixes of musicals that equate loudness with impact, 'Hairspray' never overdoes it. This is a wonderfully well-recorded and fully realized audio presentation. The songs, dialogue and effects all have a smooth and warm feel that's not too brittle or bright. Low bass is air-tight and punchy, without being overbearing. The music never overwhelms, and dialogue is perfectly balanced in the mix. This is a five-star soundtrack all the way.
For years, New Line has been one of the few studios (if not the only one) that as a matter of policy has produced all of its supplemental content for DVD entirely in high-def, in anticipation of future HD formats. Now, with the studio finally jumping into the next-gen game, that approach should pay off handsomely. To be sure, 'Hairspray' is a fantastic start -- a full two discs worth of material is shared with the standard-def DVD version (hitting stores day-and-date with the Blu-ray), and every last frame of it presented in full 1080p/i/VC-1 video. Hallelujah!
I'm going to go out of order this time, and start by looking at the supplements on disc two, as the majority of the documentary material is there (disc one is largely a repository for deleted scenes and the like). In all, there are four separate documentary features included, and all are terrific. The centerpiece is the 78-minute "You Can't Stop The Beat." Everything you might ever want to know about this movie remake is here -- from its gestation and eventual success as a Broadway musical, to the surprisingly arduous process of refashioning it for the screen, to the complex production of the film itself. New Line apparently sent a zillion camera crews to the set, because every scene seems to have been documented from every conceivable angle -- there is simply no stone left unturned. The cast & crew interviews and all the behind-the-scenes footage is terrific, and edited perfectly -- I was never bored for a second, and that's saying a lot for someone who's seen far too many of these things. If you watch only one bonus feature on this disc, make it "You Can't Stop the Beat."
That's not to say that the remaining three featurettes aren't just as good. Offering much-needed context, this trio of historically-minded segments are highly informative. "The Buddy Deane Show" (8 minutes) is a treat -- a look back at the TV show that inspired John Waters to create his original film. The archival footage is great fun, and we even get new interviews with some of the then-teens who were on the show, which are quite touching. "John Waters on 'Hairspray'" (15 minutes) is just that and more, featuring the director on the making of his original cult classic, plus interviews with a host of other cast and crew members (including a fresh interview with star Ricki Lake) as well as several New Line executives, among them CEO Robert Shaye. Finally, "Hairspray on Broadway" (16 minutes) gives the full story on how this crazy little movie was turned into a musical sensation. Just the sheer number and variety of interviews on all three of these docs is impressive -- I don't think there's a single notable aspect of the entire Hairspray story that isn't covered.
Moving back to disc one, you'll find plenty of additional material that's also worth devouring. First up is a batch of excised material that revolves around the film's musical numbers. There are five Deleted Scenes, running about 11 minutes. The highlight is certainly the unused song "I Can Wait," a fun tune that was perhaps wisely cut for time but still looks great. Even better are the 36 minutes of alternate song and dance numbers, cleverly dubbed "Hairspray Extensions." Each number in the movie is shown in a fly-on-the-wall form, including different camera angles, rough cuts and rehearsals. Finally, there are "Step-by-Step Dance Instructions" for two of the film's big numbers. Each is a fairly easy-to-understand tutorial with the film's choreographers on how to master the steps, and you can choose between two versions (both featuring the same narration): either a rehearsal, or the finished film scene.
By the time we get to the two full-length, screen-specific audio commentaries, it's hard to imagine there being anything left to discuss, but lo and behold, both tracks are filled with even more interesting detail. Director Adam Shankman and star Nikki Blonsky team up for track one, with producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron on track two. Shankman and the unstoppable force of nature that is Blonsky are the most entertaining, even if that's only because her story is so touching. Still working her day job at retail only days before she finally showed up on the set for her movie debut, Blonsky is so immensely likable that she just radiates goodwill. Zadan and Meron are far more subdued, but they do offer more nuts and bolts production detail, particularly on the key decisions made in terms of casting, music and story (they are actually far more eloquent in articulating Shankman's ideas than Shankman himself). I don't know if anyone but die-hard fans will want to listen to both of these commentaries, but they're certainly worth the investment for those so inclined.
Rounding out the set is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which can be found on disc two and is also presented in 1080p/VC-1 video.
Despite some negative preconceptions, I ended up loving 'Hairspray.' Featuring a breakout performance by Nikki Blonsky, this is a buoyant, heartfelt and beautifully realized musical that stays faithful to the off-beat spirit and tone of the original John Waters cult classic. As New Line's first-ever high-def release, this Blu-ray is equally impressive, featuring terrific video and audio, plus two discs full of extras. There is simply no reason not to pick this one up -- if this one disc is any indication, next-gen latecomer New Line may just become the studio to beat when it comes to high-def disc releases.