The Contenders

Release date: July 20 Distributor: New Line

The phrase “feel-bad” movie has been invoked more than once in the media recently to describe a spate of films that could fall under the rubric “On Death and Dying.” With so much wartime strife, violence, grief, family dysfunction and misanthropy pervading American screens between now and New Year, it would seem the joyous, life-affirming “Hairspray” is just the blast of counterprogramming Academy voters might warm to.

When compared with such Oscar-winning musicals as “Chicago,” “Gigi” and “My Fair Lady,” “Hairspray” might appear to be a light confection on the surface, but its underlying themes of equality and acceptance across racial and class divides, not to mention the idea that beauty is more than skin deep, place it more in the category of “West Side Story” with a dash of “Grease.”

What’s more, the film’s social consciousness has not detracted from the subversive humor of its source, John Waters’ original 1988 feature on which the Broadway musical and this subsequent film version is based. The pic’s almost $200 million worldwide take is a sign that message-laden content and rollicking good fun can co-exist.

Along with new songs added by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to their original stage score, the film boasts breakout performances by rising stars Nikki Blonsky, Zac Efron and Elijah Kelley as well as the novelty of John Travolta — in drag and a fat suit — reviving his singing and dancing days of yore.

David Gropman’s production design depicts early ’60s Baltimore as a vision of pastel, sock-hop glory while Rita Ryack’s costumes reveal the inventiveness she displayed in “Casino” and her Oscar-nominated work in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

See photos, trailer and more on ‘Hairspray’

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