While I’m haunted by John Waters’ pencil thin mustache, I must admit Hairspray (1988) is pretty entertaining. There’s an element of trashy camp that the new, sleek, musical version misses out on, and as a result the cultural statements are cheesily glossed over in song instead of creating thought-provoking moments.
Having the overprotective mother not just humorously overprotective, but hysterically afraid of black people makes more of a statement about how ridiculous prejudice is. Having a psychiatrist with a hypnotically spinning circle and cattle prod makes light of ineffective behavioral adjustment therapy. And as punishment for her big hair, having Tracy sent to special ed with all the retards* and black kids being purposely held back is so ridiculous and surreal, that it says a lot more about maligning groups of people than monologuing or singing about it. It’s a great example making light of a situation to make a statement.
But I think the biggest change from the screen to the musical is having Tracy as the lead character. Yes, she’s the main character the story, but the original film is much more of an ensemble piece. It’s not just about self-esteem and body image or a woman trying to relive her glory years through her daughter, but about how everyone in the town is dealing with racial issues, raising kids, and surviving high school.
What I’m trying to say is I like the original version of Hairspray better than the musical version. It has fun with social issues instead of preaching, it’s campy instead of family entertainment (although the two aren’t really exclusive), and it’s just plain ridiculous.
Also, there isn’t a Zac Efron.
*I’m always struck at how retard is thrown around in older (but not really that old) films, having the term PC-ed out of me years ago.