In preparation for the 2007 release of the musical
HAIRSPRAY (adapted from the award-winning Broadway
musical) I decided to revisit the 1988 original written and
directed by John Waters. Waters always has been a very
subversive filmmaker and this cheery, almost mainstream
quasi-musical played at the Sundance Film Festival and was a
critical hit. In many ways, it is perhaps the most palatable of
all of Waters' movies. There's a sweetness and naiveté to its
essence, yet it also falls completely within Waters' oeuvre.
HAIRSPRAY is a paean to the early 1960s when the
troubles of the latter part of the decade were still unimaginable.
It is set in 1962 -- a time when America was still perceived as
innocent. The assassinations of a president, a civil rights leader
and a presidential candidate had not yet occurred nor had the
escalation of troops in Southeast Asia. Still, there are hints of
the upheavals to come in Waters' film. The métier of the
teenagers who are the heart of the film is rock 'n' roll, with
its roots in blues, gospel and country. It is perhaps no accident
that this genre of music reached its popularity at a time when
Black Americans were struggling against segregation. Waters
notes this in the film and makes it an important subplot.
The film centers on Tracy Turnblad (Rikki Lake in her
screen debut), a zaftig Baltimore teenager whose goal in life
is to land a spot on the "council" of The Corny Collins Show,
a locally-produced variation on American Bandstand. Of course,
this isn't something her homemaker mother Edna (Divine, in his
final major screen appearance) or her father Wilbur (Jerry Stiller),
a joke store owner, fully support. Nevertheless, when Tracy
manages the impossible -- despite the efforts of her nemesis
Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) -- her parents lend their
This seemingly lightweight concoction does have several
messages, but Waters handles them in a mostly subtle way
(in a manner that even Samuel L. Goldwyn might have approved).
Tracy is basically a fat girl and while Amber makes a couple of
cracks about her weight, it really doesn't become an issue.
Probably because Tracy can dance, and dance well. Well enough
to catch the eye of Amber's beau Link (Michael St. Gerard).
Waters also throws in a secondary romance (that isn't as well
developed) between Tracy's best pal Penny Pingleton (Leslie
Ann Powers) and African-American Seaweed (Clayton Prince).
The relationship does cause a bit of concern for Penny's parents
who hire a psychiatrist (played by Waters in an amusing cameo)
bent on "curing" her attraction to black men.
When Seaweed's younger sister is refused permission
to attend a taping of The Corny Collins Show because the
producer (Divine in male drag) is a racist who does not want
integration on the dance floor, Tracy and her pals take a stand.
This leads to a riot at an amusement park and jeopardizes
Tracy's chances for the crown of Miss Automotive, allowing
Amber a chance to snatch victory.
HAIRSPRAY is a pleasant satire that goes down easy,
thanks to the genial cast. Waters has always shown a knack
for oddball choices and this film is no different. Sonny Bono
and Deborah Harry have a field day as the uptight and snooty
Von Tussles while Ruth Brown does a nice turn as deejay/singer
Motormouth Maybelle (who also happens to be Seaweed's mom).
Shawn Thompson (whom some will recall from his stint on the
CBS daytime drama Guiding Light) offers a fine performance as
Corny Collins and Waters stalwart Mink Stole is priceless as his
right-hand woman. There's also a hilarious cameo by, of all
people, Pia Zadora as a "Beatnik Chick."
The film, though, rests firmly on the shoulders of Rikki Lake
who delivers a wonderfully nuanced, believable portrayal of a
pleasingly plump young woman without body image issues. Her
Tracy believes in herself and that may be the most subversive
of all of Waters' messages.
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 92 mins.
|© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.