This movie isn’t a complete failure on its own terms, but it is so vastly inferior to the stage musical it is based on that watching the process by which it has eclipsed that stage version has enraged me.
The movie has its strengths, certainly; the score it inherited from the stage version is a highly enjoyable one, and some of the performances are excellent. Nikki Blonsky is an extremely appealing heroine as Tracy, Queen Latifah has one of her best roles as Motormouth Maybelle, and Zac Efron, ideally cast as teen idol Link Larkin, gives the best performance of his career.
But two problems deeply mar the film’s success. One is the attempt to take the stage musical, which took place in a musical-comedy fantasy land, and transplant it into the realm of gritty reality. This is illustrated almost immediately after the film begins, in the opening number “Good Morning, Baltimore”. The ‘rats on the street’ mentioned in the lyrics are portrayed in the stage version as cute little puppets; in the movie they are portrayed by real rats, changing a charming moment into a disturbing one and instantly conveying the film’s much more sour and unpleasant overall tone.
The stage show’s most serious song, “I Know Where I’ve Been”, is accompanied by ultra-serious scenes of marching protestors, and the show’s villain, who was little more than a snobbish opportunist in the stage version and even joined in the climactic dance number at the end, is here much more petty and malicious, actually trying to seduce Tracy’s father just to hurt Tracy and her mother.
I think they were trying to blend the tone of the original John Waters film with the tone of the musical, but the result is an awkward blend of two styles that just makes the film more unsatisfying. Granted, the Grease film used a similar combination of sweet nostalgia and gritty reality, but it blended them far more seamlessly and used them to deliberate effect, neither of which this movie manages.
And speaking of Grease, the film’s other major problem is John Travolta’s star turn as Edna. Travolta’s isn’t the only weak performance in the film—Amanda Bynes is her usual bland self as Penny, and Christopher Walken gives one of his more annoying turns as Tracy’s father Wilbur—but his is undoubtedly the worst.
To start with, the entire joke Edna’s character is built on, from Divine’s performance to Harvey Fierstein’s, is that what is clearly a man in a dress is playing a female character. Travolta actually attempts to play her as a convincing woman, and the results are simply embarrassing. He compounds this problem by attempting an authentic Baltimore accent, which, since no-one else in the film is speaking with one, just winds up sounding bizarre.
On top of these problems, Travolta was always a terrible singer (even in Grease, he barely bluffs his way through his songs, and the less said about his singing career in the Seventies, the better), and his singing voice has only gotten worse with age—he’s genuinely painful to listen to here.
Of the three new songs, “Ladies’ Choices” is a fine new addition that is actually more memorable than Link’s stage solo “It Takes Two”, but “New Girl In Town”, originally a cut number from the stage show, is so forgettable that one wonders why they bothered to put it back in. As for “Come So Far (Got So Far To Go)”, which is sung over the closing credits, it’s an enjoyable song but it just feels like an anticlimax after the stage show’s epic finale number “You Can’t Stop the Beat”.
This movie, as I stated, has its redeeming qualities, but the fact that it has basically replaced the vastly superior stage musical in people’s minds is a grave injustice, and Travolta’s horrifying display in the starring role makes it pretty hard to watch in any case.