Saturday, 29 September 2007

Hairspray combines elemental Protestant martyrology with a Sesame Street aesthetic to deliver a musical with a (not very subtle) point. But the fact is that this is how, in 50 or 100 years, the American civil rights movement will be remembered. Clearly the model is John Fox's Book of Martyrs (1563), which became a rich vein of narrative for such writers as Shakespeare. And the 'down-home' version of American street culture owes everything to Jim Henson's puppet program, which debuted in 1969.

Yet another seminal moment might be 1994's Muriel's Wedding, which also shows an outcast from the rigid heirarchies of school politics triumphing in the face of adversity. This is an Australian film.

In Hairspray, the weak point is John Travolta, who plays Tracy Turnblad's fat mum. There's something wrong about the way the character moves and it's because it's not a woman actor.

Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) herself is not entirely satisfying since her standard dance moves barely encroach on the outer fringes of the accomplishment demonstrated by the black characters, headed by Seaweed (Elijah Kelley). These dance routines, in the schoolroom, outside the playground fence, and in the school bus, are fantastic.

In fact it is black dancing that is the real hero of this film drawing, regardless of prior prejudice, popular acclaim. The way these men and women move is revelatory, in the context of this film. It is a very nice comparison, neatly done, and clearly showing how black rhythms and body movements have impacted on our understanding of elegance today.

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