I suspect some of you are wondering, “why Hairspray?” What possible reason could New Line have for choosing a remake-turned-musical as the vehicle for their long-awaited arrival in the high definition home video space? Surely not the box office results slightly north of $100 million which I’d be hard pressed to believe contained a noteworthy number of early HD adopters. If New Line’s extended high definition debut resulted from waiting until a sizeable number of players were installed in homes, why not come out guns-a-blazing with Lord of the Rings? Or even Final Destination to appease the Playstation 3 less techno-savvy crowd? Believe me; I was wondering the same thing, too.
I’ll be the first to confess theatrical musicals aren’t my cup of tea, presented in high definition or not. The hard work and dedication by cast and crew to pull off majestic musical numbers is commendable and even enjoyable once or twice, but a new song and dance kicking into gear seconds after the previous one ended grinds on my patience and nerves. This is especially true if the number features an aged John Travolta dressed as a woman prancing around with Christopher Walken as his love interest. An ode to Hairspray’s and Travolta’s roots matter not. Thirty seconds of this cinematic travesty puts my finger on fast-forward faster than Amanda Bynes as oblivious Penny Pingleton could obliterate a lollipop with those lips of hers, or Zac Efron as Link Larkon could make a girl pass out.
Underneath Hairspray’s myriad of song and dance numbers is the core of John Waters” original 1988 story about a small town’s fight for racial integration and social equality in the early 1960s. The lessons that generation learned and experienced still ring strong today even in Hairspray’s over the top presentation of it. I’ll even admit some of the uplifting songs, especially the closing number, compliment the message perfectly. The original John Waters version minus the theatrics is still the best told version, but there’s definitely a happy chord struck in Hairspray for audiences craving a big musical after Dreamgirls and Chicago.
Bringing the bold and beautiful colors of Hairspray to life in 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen video is a resounding success from New Line thanks to a low bit-rate but tight VC-1 encode. I would have expected the bit-rate to average the mid to high 20mbps range based on the quality and was surprised to see it bouncing around the in the teens. It’s not the numbers that are important; it’s what you see on the screen. Hairspray offers plenty of strong detail, vibrant costumes and whacky sets to treat the eyes. There’s no way the DVD version’s 480p video could rival that found on this Blu-ray Disc.
New Line has been a pioneer in offering outstanding 7.1 audio mixes dating back to the award-winning Lord of the Rings DVD box sets. So it comes as no surprise the studio has followed Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment’s lead in future-proofing all their releases with DTS-HD Master Lossless audio, with the added touch of additional rear/side surrounds. Not even their distributor, Warner Home Video, has embraced DTS-HD despite a lengthy head start in the Blu-ray Disc space. I currently don’t have the means to listen to the full lossless track, but the DTS 1.5mbps core is well-mixed to envelop a room with the nonstop barrage of musical numbers. Great aural moments are when dancers/singers are passing in and out of frame from in front, behind, or side to side, and the surrounds perfectly track their voices. I can only imagine the full lossless 7.1 mix is a real treat.
All the bonus features from the Shake and Shimmy standard DVD edition to Blu-ray Disc with a video upgrade to either 1080i or 1080p. Behind the Beat, located on disc one, is oddly the only feature exclusive to Blu-ray. It offers fairly straightforward contextual synchronized behind-the-scenes footage during the majority of the film via picture-in-picture. Due to New Line’s decision to not allow access to sub-menus without interrupting the feature, the PiP window cannot be turned on and off without stopping the film completely and returning to the main menu. This glaring inconvenience on the lone HD exclusive extra will hopefully be addressed in New Line’s upcoming additional high-def releases.
The remaining disc one special features are headlined by a pair of Feature-Length Audio Commentaries: the first with Director Adam Shankman and Nikki Blonsky, and the second with Producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. Adam is an extremely outgoing and talkative man, all easily apparent in his everyday goofy demeanor with his leading actress prodding him along. The producers are far more reserved and narrative with their remarks, delving deeper into the filmmaking process than personal experiences from the set. Common jovial and educational approaches to commentaries are more than covered by the combined tracks.
Shankman and Blonsky also offer up their optional banter to five Deleted/Alternate Scenes totaling roughly 10 minutes. Only diehard Hairspray fans will find anything worthwhile in these brief character-centric additions. Rounding out disc one are Hairspray Extensions (37:15), a bi or tri-split screen effect showing final film dances versus rehearsals for six numbers; and the ability to instantly Jump to a Song via a quick music inspired scene selection menu.
The special features on disc two delve deep into the Hairspray mythology and individual production components required to bring a musical to life. Hairspray history is covered in The Roots of Hairspray (39:37), a three-part documentary split between the film’s inspirations: The Buddy Deane Show; John Waters” Hairspray; and Hairspray on Broadway. This is a great Hairspray primer for those ignorant to the phenomenon which should have been on disc one and prompted for viewing prior to watching the film.
Realizing the return of Hairspray to theaters is covered from head to toe in You Can’t Stop the Beat: The Long Journey of Hairspray (1:18:29), a compilation of eight featurettes touching upon the writing process, cast, music, choreography, costumes, hairdos, production design, and post-production reflections. Most of the valuable behind-the-scenes footage is buried in here amongst various interview and clip segments, culminating in a trip down the red carpet to the Hairspray Hollywood premiere. It’s a great bookend after viewing the film or checking out the Roots documentary. Rounding out disc two is the standard Theatrical Trailer.
No amount of questioning changes the fact that Hairspray will become the baseline with which we measure New Line’s high-def performance from here on out. They came out strong in the audio/video department for their inaugural appearance on high definition home video in Hairspray. While offering 1080i or 1080p special feature spanning two discs was a mature format decision, failing to provide much in term of exclusive HD content or now commonplace fully accessible pop-up menus while the film is playing mars the next-gen experience. If New Line needs time to tweak and tinker to master a complete high-def package, I’d rather they experiment on Hairspray than on their next big Blu-ray Disc release and first dip into HD DVD, the far more appealing Pan’s Labyrinth. The guinea pig has squealed; let’s see the real deal next.
– Dan Bradley