"Wilbur, it's the times, they're a-changin'. Something's blowin' in the wind. Fetch me my diet pills, would you, hon?"—Edna Turnblad (Divine)
After a career of glorious trash cinema, John Waters yokes his punk sensibilities to a PG teen epic, a Grease for the postmodern generation. The result is a sprightly satire of race relations and rock and roll.
Facts of the Case
Baltimore, 1962. The biggest teen obsession in town is "The Corny Collins Show," a low-budget version of "American Bandstand." Kids tease and groom their hair with fetishistic glee, bopping innocently to songs laced with sexual innuendo ("give me gravy," "shake a tail feather"). Parents see all of this as a sign of the apocalypse: "It ain't right to be dancing on TV to that colored music," says one old woman.
Tracey Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is one of those young "hairhoppers." As a fat girl, she is already cut out of the culture of the beauty-obsessed. But boy, can she dance. And when her outsider status wins her legions of fans on "Corny Collins," she quickly turns her attention to promoting the cause of Baltimore's real outsiders: the black community that invented the rock and roll her generation loves.
When I first saw Grease many years ago, it struck me that there was something dreadfully missing from its whitewashed portrait of the 1950s. How could a film chronicling early rock and roll culture be completely bereft of any black performers, even on the soundtrack? Grease erased all ethnic and class difference in favor of a utopian past. It was cute for a few minutes, but it seems to hold up less successfully as the years pass.
But Hairspray immediately makes its point clear: the birth of rock and roll was as much about social acceptability as it was about generational conflict. We see it in the first scenes of "The Corny Collins Show," where the teens all dance their identical moves to a litany of gimmicky songs. Everything in 1962 Baltimore revolves around social politics: the teens of the show guard their fame jealously, especially the conceited Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick). Amber's mother (Deborah Harry) forces her to train endlessly, trying to recapture mom's past glory as a minor-league beauty queen. Amber's father (Sonny Bono) is a petty politician, resisting the tide of integration by using his daughter as a shill for his campaign. In fact, many whites in the town hate integration, including the station management of WZZT, who have reduced open black participation on "Corny Collins" to the once-a-month "Negro Day."
Ironically, Tracey Turnblad's surprising debut on "Corny Collins," where she immediately wows the crowd with her charm and steals Amber's hunky boyfriend (Michael St. Gerard, looking so much like a young Elvis here that he was shortly afterwards cast as Elvis in a TV miniseries), becomes the first sign of "integration" on the show: a fat girl from a blue-collar neighborhood has moved in. But Tracey's weight is not merely a comic device in the film (as it might be for other directors). It is a mark of her identity, her outsider status. She always desires to be part of the crowd, to conform, but she will always be slightly outside. And this outsider status becomes her best weapon, drawing the attention of Baltimore's disaffected youth and providing the source of her own empathy for the city's black population.
Contrary to what you might have heard about the 1950s on television, kids, things were not like you see on "Happy Days." The mass media "behavior offensive" that promoted social conformity and moral order was designed to counter pressures on American culture from within and without. Within: the growing ethnic and class tensions which followed World War II, as some people discovered that the post-war boom was not trickling down to them. Without: Cold War paranoia (which ironically promoted American conformity as a countermeasure to "Commie" conformity). While Hairspray does not dwell much on the latter set of pressures (apart from a few offhand comments), it is the internal tensions of post-war American society that seem to weigh most on the minds of the characters.
And rock and roll becomes the flashpoint for these tensions. Rightly so, as the early 1960s saw white record companies co-opt rock and roll for the mainstream. Even as the affluent whites of Baltimore resist integration, the black community, led by the charismatic Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown) prepares to makes its voice heard. And Tracey and her best friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) are there to help.
Of course, Hairspray is satire, and the growing cultural conflict is handled with a light comic touch. Up until Hairspray, writer and director John Waters had been embraced as the king of "trash cinema," with his punk approach to bad taste. This rebellious streak had always seemed more aesthetic than political, focusing on the visual surface of the films through offensive imagery (and anyone who has seen Pink Flamingos will know exactly what I am talking about). But those disgusting visuals were a clever distraction. At their best, Waters' films like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble were really as much about exposing the marginalized fringes of gender and class—offending through politics—as they were about offensive visuals. Waters tames the aesthetic extremes of his filmmaking in Hairspray, playing up the politics. The result is a much sweeter and accessible satire than what had come before (as Polyester might have been without the scratch-and-sniff cards).
And the film shows off nicely what Waters has called his "guarded optimism." It is true that his portrayal of the black community is glamorized slightly, and that the end of the film is joyously naïve. But it is difficult to maintain a grim tone about the problems of racial politics when—well, the music and dancing are so much fun. Everyone in Hairspray seems to be having such a good time, that the tone is infectious. Certainly, Ricki Lake turns in a convincing performance in her film debut, seeming so comfortable in her part that she elicits immediate empathy from the audience. Although Waters is well known for his "stunt casting," fading stars like Ruth Brown, Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry, and a brief but brilliantly surreal cameo by Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek as beatniks (showing the failure of the previous generation's young rebels) romp through the story without letting a moment lag. And as both Tracey's burned out mother, finding new life in her daughter's fame, and the WZZT station manager (in his only on-screen role as a man), Waters regular Divine turns in the performance of his bizarre career. Of course, having played a woman his whole life, the transvestite Divine has no problem sinking into the role of Edna Turnblad, but the character comes across as fully realized and not a gimmick at all. This is the swansong of Divine's career (he died shortly after the film premiered), and John Waters has had a difficult time overcoming his friend's death both personally and professionally.
Some of that difficulty is noted in the commentary track, recorded separately by Waters and Ricki Lake. "Hair is politics in Baltimore," Waters remarks right up front. He discusses mostly the real history behind the film, in particular the political climate of Baltimore in the 1960s and the fallout it had on the local "Buddy Dean Show," after which "Corny Collins" is based. He also identifies all the real dances and locations. Unfortunately, the track lags from time to time, and often Waters just merely admires his handiwork. Ricki Lake is heard less often on the track, talking mostly about the experience of working on the film, and how it became a springboard to her career. I wonder if putting Waters and Lake together in the same room to record the track might have elicited more freewheeling discussion, but on its own, the track is interesting mostly for Waters' account of the real Baltimore of his childhood.
Hairspray is available from New Line in a two-pack with Waters' more recent film Pecker. This disc includes a theatrical trailer and audio options for 5.1 and 2.0 stereo. Although many of the old songs played on the soundtrack do not match the audio quality of today's pop hits, the sound mix shows them off quite well. The transfer is clean and without obvious defects, showing off the bright colors and garish fashions of the period. The film looks great, even considering its low budget and the passage of time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On the commentary track, John Waters refers several times to scenes written but never filmed, or filmed and cut from the final version. It might have been nice to have seen some of this material, especially the original draft of the film's screenplay—heaven only knows what it was like before Waters decided to shoot for a PG rating. Perhaps we should simply be grateful that New Line treated the movie as well as it did.
Hairspray has aged remarkably well. It may be even better now than it was in 1988. It is certainly John Waters' most accessible film for mainstream audiences and successfully blends crisp political satire with a sense of fun. I highly recommend the film for those looking for an upbeat comedy with a little more depth than the average big-budget Hollywood fare. Divine will be missed, but the spirit of Baltimore lives on in John Waters' filmmaking.
At $30 for both Hairspray and Pecker, New Line is praised by this court for providing an excellent value on two entertaining films. Case dismissed.
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• Commentary Track with John Waters and Ricki Lake
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