BALTIMORE, 1962. THE HEYDAY OF HAIR-DOS AND HAIR-DON’TS, HEARTTHROBS AND HEFTY GIRLS, HOT DATES AND HIP TALKERS, BEATNIKS AND HAIR HOPPERS, AND ONE MAGICAL POTION THAT KEEPS IT ALL TOGETHER.
I bet John Waters surprised a few fans upon the release of this film. They had gotten used to his experimental underground work, including a film where transvestite performer Divine famously ate dog shit. But Hairspray was different. It worked for PG audiences without losing Waters’s special touch, his feeling for the bizarre. The film is a sweet nostalgia trip for anyone his age (he was born in 1946) and also displays the director’s genuine interest in civil rights.
Baltimore, 1962. Teenagers have a new favorite TV show, “The Corny Collins Show” (incidentally, most cities at the time had their own local version of the Dick Clark-hosted Bandstand). The rotund Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is one of many teens who dream of being one of those fortunate kids who can be seen every week on the show, dancing to the latest hits. Tracy may be fat, but she refuses to see that as an obstacle and succeeds to get a spot on the show thanks to her beaming charisma and talent for dancing. She instantly makes an enemy out of the mean-spirited Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) and even manages to charm Amber’s boyfriend (Michael St. Gerard).
However, Tracy soon turns her attention to the racism that has Baltimore in a firm grip and becomes engaged in the fight for integration, something that is not appreciated by the people who run the TV station.
Attacking racism with fury
You can really tell that Waters has done something here that comes straight from his heart. The music (several oldies that are largely forgotten), the clothes, the pastel colors, the awe-inspiring hairdos (including the one that conceals a bomb!) are parts of the amusing legacy of early-1960s Baltimore where Waters grew up. The other not-so amusing part of the legacy is of course the racism, something he attacks with fury. Several sequences show how ridiculous the old arguments against integration were; the approach may be a bit heavy-handed (the segregationists are the usual redneck clowns Hollywood presents), but it works and Ruth Brown is very effective as Motormouth Maybelle, the host of “Corny Collins’ Negro Day”, who proves on every one of those Negro Days that she deserves to be the permanent host of the show.
The cast is marvelous. Lake’s enthusiasm as Tracy is positively infectious; Divine is both hilarious and sweet as her mother (and repulsive as one of the racist managers of the TV station) and makes a great couple with Jerry Stiller (Seinfeld and King of Queens fans should know that he played the same kind of character in the ‘80s). Blondie singer Debbie Harry is just wonderful as Amber’s mother. Waters himself even turns up as a shrink using very unorthodox methods.
Some viewers will be turned off by his sillier ingredients. And fans of the earlier films might not appreciate his foray into family-friendly features. But the director’s love for this era conquers any obstacle. After all, what could be better than a man who is never afraid to shock his audiences but always sympathizes with those who are left on the sidelines, those who are fat, gay or black (or all of that). Why not dedicate one cheerfully silly, but exceptionally loving and positive film, to that?
Hairspray 1988-U.S. 96 min. Color. Produced by Rachel Talalay. Written and directed by John Waters. Cast: Sonny Bono (Franklin von Tussle), Ruth Brown (Motormouth Maybelle), Divine (Edna Turnblad/Arvin Hodgepile), Colleen Fitzpatrick, Michael St. Gerard, Debbie Harry… Ricki Lake, John Waters.
Trivia: The movie was subsequently turned into a musical, which was filmed as Hairspray (2007).
Last word: “I think [Bono] was cast even before I met him. Debbie Harry kept saying, oh come on, get him, get him. She said, ‘I’ll blow him,’ as a joke, anything to get him. Debbie and I really wanted him to play the husband. And he was great. He was another team player. And what I knew about Sonny was that he worked for Specialty Records when he was really young, one of the only white artist on a really great, great black rhythm and blues label, so he knew everything about the subject matter of ‘Hairspray’. He grew up on that, before Cher and everything.” (Waters, Gay Times)