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Can't Stop the Beat 

I don't like musicals. I've never bought into the suddenly-breaking-into-song business. It's just so unnatural. Yet I soldier on. In recent years, I saw the film versions of Chicago, Phantom of the Opera and Dreamgirls. And those brought up a whole other area of problems. Why do they have to be so damn dark? Are audiences really craving for music-filled stories in which everything goes so wrong for so many characters?

The last time I remember fun and nothing but fun at a musical was when I saw Bye Bye Birdie. (OK, so I was 14 and had a big crush on Ann-Margret.) But now, in my anti-musical head, Birdie's been left in the dust. I don't believe that I've ever had a better time at any movie than I did at Hairspray.

From the opening sequence, of chunky, deliriously happy little Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) walking, dancing, and singing "Good Morning Baltimore" on the way to school, to the spectacular and rousing finale of what seems like the whole cast singing and dancing "You Can't Stop the Beat," the film is a relentless celebration of being different, of refusing to conform, of thumbing noses at society. It's all about going for your dreams and getting around the meanies and squares who hinder you.

Based on both the 1988 film by John Waters and the 2002 Broadway musical, this new film version takes on a life of its own, telling the story of Tracy's dream to be a dancer on The Corny Collins Show (which stands in for American Bandstand). It's 1962 (yes, the same year as American Graffiti), and Tracy and her best friend Penny (perky Amanda Bynes) rush home every day to watch -- and dance to -- the raucous show, which features the charismatic Corny (James Marsden, an X-Man no more) hosting a batch of squeaky-clean white kids dancing up storms to pop music. But once a week the atmosphere is a bit different when Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) takes over hosting chores on "Negro Day."

When Tracy hears that Brenda, one of the "nice white kids," is leaving the show "just for nine months" and a replacement is needed, her goal is set. But Tracy is, um, different. The kids on the show might as well be called "the beautiful people." Tracy isn't much more than a pudgy little girl with a great smile. Her seamstress mom, Edna (John Travolta, in more makeup than Tammy Faye Bakker and more padding than Refrigerator Perry), doesn't want her to audition, because she's afraid she'll be made fun of. Her dad Wilbur (Christopher Walken), the easygoing proprietor of the joke shop the Hardy Har Hut, tells her to follow her dream.

But let's stop it right there. If nothing else about this movie attracts you, just think about a 350-pound woman, played to the hilt by Travolta, married to a normal-sized guy, played by Walken. They're hopelessly in love. Walken plants a sweet and funny peck on Travolta's cheek. And then these two old hoofers have a marvelous song-and-dance scene to the sweet tune "You're Timeless to Me."

At the other end of the spectrum is TV station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), about whom you need to know three things: She's a former beauty queen still living in her own past, she makes sure her own clumsy daughter is the lead dancer on the show, and she's a venomous racist.

Within these and many more situations and characters (John Waters cameos as a flasher in the opening number), the big, bright, colorful, splashy film erupts into a batch of catchy killer songs and joyously complicated choreography (also by director Adam Shankman). From a visual standpoint alone, you will absolutely gawk at the costumes and set design.

Like Ricki Lake before her, Nikki Blonsky comes to the project as an unknown -- a high school actor who auditioned over and over, and was plucked from obscurity while scooping ice cream at a Long Island Cold Stone Creamery. To sum her up, she's got very solid dance chops and her infectious enthusiasm leaps off the screen.

The film's main dramatic element involves a demand for black-white equality and a plea for acceptance, no matter who you are; and its major storyline steers toward a live broadcast of the Miss Teenage Hairspray Contest.

There are very few films that reach this degree of spectacle without going too far over the top. Hairspray reaches the top early on and stays there.

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