Cut from something like the same cloth as John Waters’ earlier film Hairspray (1988), his Cry-Baby (1991) is very nearly as good as its predecessor. The story of outsiders—a hillbillyish group known as “Drapes” (more or less “greasers”)—vs. straight society is similar in tone to Hairspray, but lacks the same clear-cut subversiveness. In its place, however, this juvenile-delinquent musical has an agreeably loopy tone and is an expansion of Waters’ cinematic prowess. The “Please, Mr. Jailer” musical number in this film is the single most accomplished piece of filmmaking in his entire oeuvre.
Some terrific comedic performances—notably by star Johnny Depp and the wonderful Susan Tyrell (only this and Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1981) really capture her unique screen presence)—and a somewhat surprising emotional resonance add immeasurably to the film’s quality. It may not have the specific emotional kick of the announcement that The Corny Collins Show in Hairspray is officially integrated, but its not-dissimilar feel-good ending works. As is often the case, Waters’ unusual choices in casting—Patricia Hearst, Joe Dallesandro, Traci Lords, David Nelson, Joey Heatherton—pay dividends, making the film a weird repository of pop-culture references. Altogether a joyous outburst of Watersian creativity.