HAIRSPRAY (1988)


             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
  support.

        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.


                              
Rating:                B
                              
MPAA Rating:    PG
                              
Running time:    92 mins.
© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.