I don’t know about you, but I could certainly use something cotton candy light and sweet at the moment. In messages with my darling blog wife, we lamented that, as winter is long past, it’s no longer socially acceptable to blame all of our woes on symptoms of SAD. I choose to now blame a lack of empowering films in my life…to be remedied shortly by this week’s pick.
A fat teen in 1960s Baltimore dreams only of dancing on a local TV show…until she becomes involved in the fight for integration.
Tracy Turnblad is an energetic, upbeat teen in 1960s Baltimore who loves nothing more than dancing. Her classmates and even her mother put Tracy down for her weight, but she is unfazed; she embraces her fatness and describes herself as “big, blonde, and beautiful.”
With her bff Penny, Tracy watches the Corny Collins Show, the local cable dance show, religiously. Tracy dreams of the day she will be noticed by the show and by heartthrob lead dancer Link Larkin.
Tracy’s mother Edna means well but struggles with her body image and hopes above all to shield her daughter from heartbreak. When Tracy gets the opportunity to audition for her favorite show, Edna is less than supportive–good thing papa Wilbur and Penny have got her back.
No surprises here: Tracy makes it onto the show and is an immediate success. Fans of the show love Tracy’s energy and sweet dance moves. Not so much a fan? Undisputed queen of the show Amber, whose mother works for the network and makes sure her daughter gets more than her share of airtime. Amber and her mother’s panic cranks up to full-on emergency when Tracy seems to be a real contender for the title of Miss Teen Hairspray.
In school, Amber does everything she can to send Tracy to detention. Boyfriend Link does not approve of Amber’s mean-spiritedness but worries about putting his place on the show in jeopardy. Good thing Tracy’s banishment to detention means an introduction to Seaweed and his little sister. The children of legendary Motormouth Maybelle, the two show Tracy how to leave white girl dancing behind and embrace black dance moves. Unfortunately, black dancers can only strut their stuff one day a week as the network’s execs far from progressive.
Meanwhile, sparks fly at Seaweed and Penny’s first meeting, much to the dismay of Penny’s conservative (i.e. racist, religious, repressed) mother. As Tracy and Penny spend more time with Maybelle, they become more aware of the racial injustice all around them in Baltimore. When the show’s producers eliminate “Negro Day,” the one day when black dancers are allowed to perform on the show, Tracy joins the local civil rights movement and marches for integration. Link’s hesitation divides the couple and further complications develop when Tracy goes on the run after being accused of assaulting a police officer.
Will Tracy, Seaweed, and their friends ever dance on the show again?
4/5 Pink Panther Heads
The 1988 film was basically a dance revue with a loose plot tying things together, so it translates to a Broadway musical (and film) quite naturally. You could not dream of a better cast (though this is largely true of the 1988 version too). Queen Latifah and Christopher Walken are my personal faves here, but Nikki Blonsky really steps up to the lead role despite not being a household name. It makes me sad I haven’t seen her in a whole lot of roles since. My only complaint is that I really wish Edna had been played by an actual drag queen or anyone even remotely connected to the LGBT community, though John Travolta does make for a surprisingly good Edna.
Because our film clocks in at close to 2 hours, it does have the opportunity to explore some of the original film’s themes more fully. Edna has a lot more depth here, and seeing her on a journey with body positivity is quite lovely. The relationship between Edna and Wilbur is wonderful, and I adore their duet.
We get a better picture of 1960s segregation and the emotional toll it takes on the characters of color too. Queen Latifah’s number “I Know Where I’ve Been” is moving and seemingly made for her voice (and is there a greater moment in cinema history than her singing about different kinds of pie in “Big, Blonde, and Beautiful”?). I also really appreciate the film’s wisdom about the importance of integration on TV; though dismissed as light entertainment, TV reached so many audiences and had the potential to send a powerful message about civil rights by integrating.