Judge Brett Cullum reviews that rarest of beasts: a John Waters film you can watch with your grandmother.
Cry-Baby: I'm going to sing something for my dead father, something hillbilly, something colored, something he would have loved.
I never understood why Hairspray was the first John Waters movie that was adapted for the Broadway stage, since he directed a real movie musical in 1990 called Cry-Baby. It was John Waters' first and last true Hollywood production, with a huge multi-million dollar budget and a first rate cast including Johnny Depp (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). If you took Grease and early Elvis movies like Jailhouse Rock, mixed them in a blender, and added some special Waters touches, then you'd have Cry-Baby. It's a gas! But unfortunately it flopped big time, when released to confused audiences, in its initial theatrical run. Depp was then starring in a Fox television series called 21 Jump Street, which was a hit with kids, and was a true "teen idol." But here he was in a movie high school girls didn't understand. Meanwhile, true hardcore John Waters fans were appalled at the Hollywood-mandated PG-13 cut, and many cried foul, accusing the "Pope of Trash" of selling out. The movie took in only eight million dollars in domestic box office, a little over half of its cost. Universal has now allowed the director to add back some deleted sequences, and finally—fifteen years later—we get a chance to take a look at the movie one more time. Surprisingly, it's better than ever. But then, I'm a "Drape" at heart, with a thing for Traci Lords (who made her "legitimate" motion picture debut in Cry-Baby).
Facts of the Case
The movie is a musical satire of Grease, Elvis Presley movies, and most of the "teen idol" pictures of the '50s, which always warned of the dangers of being a juvenile delinquent. It's Romeo and Juliet, with Romeo being a trashy "Drape" hep cat called Cry-Baby (Depp), and Juliet a genteel "Square" named Allison (Amy Locane, Secretary) who is "tired of being good." She starts dating Cry-Baby, and a class war erupts between the star-crossed pair's respective worlds. The Drapes Cry-Baby hangs out with suddenly find themselves the targets of the Squares, who see the couple as a threat to their clean-cut existence. Waters and his team infuse the story with musical tension—the Drapes perform rockabilly numbers complete with provocative pelvic thrusts, while the Squares seem centered on doo-wop ditties and bunny hop dance routines. It's a chance for Waters to champion the trashy heroes of his youth—the juvenile delinquents. Guess who gets the girl in the end.
The first time I saw Cry-Baby, I saw it in the theatres was when it was released. My grandmother took me to a matinee showing in Memphis. She lived two blocks from Graceland, and had always worshiped Elvis. The satire was lost on her, but she ate up the homages to '50s musicals, and thought Johnny Depp did a wonderful "King of Rock and Roll" impersonation. She left the theatre telling me how "they don't make them like that anymore!," and I knew pretty much why I loved my grandmother. She could take camp seriously, and could embrace a movie the rest of the country was avoiding in droves. But it was odd to think that I had taken her to a John Waters film and she wasn't even slightly offended by anything in the movie. Trust me, we wouldn't have gone to see Pink Flamingos together. But here at last was a John Waters film we could share without either of us feeling uncomfortable. In a way, that seemed more subversive than any of the "gross-out" fiestas that made John Waters a sensation. I hate that Hollywood and the Dreamlanders have never work together since. Hopefully one day he'll get one more shot at mainstream cinema.
The last time I saw the film on a big screen was this past summer, with Traci Lords. I wish I could say I actually went with her—but she was touring the country promoting her book and attending screenings of the film to generate interest in this DVD release. I showed up at the theatre with my copy of her autobiography, Underneath it All, tucked in the crook of my arm, and waited twenty minutes just to speak with her behind one of those fan tables loaded with souvenirs for sale. I gushed and blushed like a schoolgirl, and got a wry warm smile out of her when I told her I loved her album 1,000 Fires. We actually talked for quite a while, and she hugged me as I left her area. For the record she looks better in person, is completely warm and friendly, and smells incredible. At the screening she took questions from the audience, a strange mix of curious teenagers and gross old men who knew Traci from her underage porn queen days. One of the old men asked her about those films, and she rolled her eyes in frustration. I immediately stood up and asked her about how she met John Waters and what it was like to do Cry-Baby. She smiled, mouthed "thank you," and began to beam recalling the movie. She was proud of her work as the bad "Drape" named Wanda, and it showed. I even got a hand on my shoulder as she left the theatre, and I knew we had a momentary minor bond over our mutual love of the film.
The cast was filled with unlikely stars for any Hollywood production. Traci at the time was being investigated by the FBI for her involvement in those adult movies, but she certainly wasn't the only one who had been target of scandal and infamy (most of the cast and crew readily admit they had been incarcerated). Iggy Pop (Coffee and Cigarettes) shows up as Cry-Baby's uncle, and Oscar winner—as well as famous drunken hag—Susan Tyrell (Forbidden Zone) plays his wife Romona. Patty Hearst and Joey Heatherton both appear all too happy to play in a musical to escape their tawdry pasts. Warhol-ite and porn idol Joe Dallesandro gets to play a preacher, and Waters veteran Mink Stole also appears. Then you have some legendary actors all contributing to the mix of odd characters. Stage and screen legend Polly Bergen (Cape Fear) joins other silver screen idols like Troy Donahue (Parrish), Mike Nelson (Ozzie and Harriet), and Willem Dafoe (The Last Temptation of Christ). Ricki Lake (Hairspray) returns to Baltimore for another role with Waters. And who could ever forget Kim McGuire as the rather crazy "Hatchet Face," who gets all the film's best visual gags thanks to her unique looks? Everyone seems to be in on the joke of the film, and they play their campy roles with sincerity as well as a tongue planted in a cheek.
Cry-Baby was financed by Imagine Films after an all-out bidding war for Waters erupted after the success of Hairspray. Suddenly the guerrilla film maker from Baltimore was seen as a bankable talent, and Hollywood wanted to inaugurate him into the mainstream. For the first time John Waters had a big budget, union people working on technical aspects of the film, the best in the business on hand for music recording, and a real choreographer. Unfortunately, he also had to answer to a studio that demanded a PG-13 rating, and organized re-shoots of key sequences when the film tested poorly in a suburban shopping mall screening. The film was cut down severely, and mismarketed as a real teen movie instead of the spoof it was. Yet Cry-Baby still has some uniquely Waters moments and a wonderful sense of abandon and glee. Even though Johnny Depp and Amy Locane did not do any of their own singing (that would be James Intveld and Rachel Sweet), they do a great job performing the numbers and dancing as if they had. This is the movie that took Depp from the bowels of teenage pin-up boyhood to movie stardom. Like most of his performances you can see who he was thinking of when he acted the role. This time, it's Elvis. Strange irony that in this, his first big lead in a studio film, he did Presley, and then this year he's accused of imitating the King's son-in-law—Michael Jackson. Locane seems to channel Ann-Margret—her final song, sung on top of a car outside the jail, makes her the spitting image of the red-headed sex kitten.
I could launch into some sort of academic critical essay on what works in the film and what doesn't, but I've learned Cry-Baby is a love-it-or-hate-it affair that defies analysis. If you like rockabilly, musicals, and John Waters movies, you should be fine. If you don't get not-so-subtle satire, or ironic lip synching, then you'd be better off snuggling up with the latest action release instead of this one. Cry-Baby is a unique movie in the John Waters canon; it definitely feels different than anything else he's produced. It comes off as sweet and silly, and sometimes that's just what you want out of a movie. Don't go in expecting much more than a joyride with singing juvenile delinquents. The movies Cry-Baby spoofs were never classic or heady material, so it's unfair to think this production would do much more than the source material. This is all about nostalgia and escape for an hour and a half.
This Universal edition is called a "director's cut," because
Waters had the chance to add in deleted scenes and expand the running time of
the film by approximately seven minutes. Most of the material doesn't add much
to the story, but some of it helps the character development and gives more time
to actors whose sequences were cut from the theatrical release. Here's a brief
list of the added sequences for those curious to know before they make a
purchase (spoiler warning if you like surprises):
In addition to the scenes listed above that were directly added to the movie
proper, there is also a deleted scenes section which offers the following
The transfer is basically very good, with a few hiccups here and there. Sometimes it seems grainy, but for the most part the colors pop and everything looks good. I detected some problems with the audio mix, and sometimes the background vocals seem a little too loud in relation to the lead. Then there was one instance where this was reversed. I'm not sure what happened, since the track is a basic stereo mix, but some of it did seem a little off. But again, it's nothing too bad in the grand scheme of things, and for the most part the sound is solid enough. The extras make up for any shortcomings. Included is a featurette which contains interviews with most of the cast and crew about their memories of Cry-Baby. It includes a rare look at Johnny Depp talking about how scared he was about the dancing. The entire feature runs over thirty minutes, and discusses every facet of the production. Also included is the usual brilliant commentary from the director. John Waters gives great talks about his films, and this one is just as enlightening and entertaining as any he's done. Great stuff!
So why do I like this film so much? It's just fun. Give me Cry-Baby over Grease any day. Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta seem so squeaky clean and eager to whitewash the '50s, whereas Johnny Depp and Amy Locane make a believable pair in Waters' stylized Baltimore. Neither film shoots for realism; however, one feels like a vapid money grab with pointless nostalgia, while the other feels like an honest ode to the era filled with real songs and real heart. It's Waters doing a musical, and ironically treating the genre like a sacred cow in many ways. That's what feels so revolutionary this time around. He dared to make a polite movie with a Hollywood cast. Some may protest, and surely they can cling to their copies of Pink Flamingos or Female Trouble as solace. But for me, give me a director full of surprises and I'm one happy judge.
Please, Mr. Jailer! Let Cry-Baby go free. He's only doing time for being young.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director John Waters
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