Always delighting in shocking audiences, Baltimore filmmaker John Waters — the self-proclaimed “Prince of Puke” — perhaps threw the movie-going world his biggest shock of all by suddenly coming up with the sweet-tempered, PG-rated Hairspray. After years of unrated and X-rated (later reclassified as NC-17) deliberate outrages like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, no one expected Waters to do anything like this. But in so doing, he not only made his best movie up to that point (possibly still his best), but proved that he didn’t need an X-rating to be subversive — or hilarious.
Hairspray is a nostalgic though far from sentimental look at the early ’60s (before it was encroached upon by the “real” 1960s) with its inane music, bizarre hairdos, local TV dance shows (think: bargain basement American Bandstand) – a period that was little more than a hangover from the ’50s. Waters gives us the story of Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), a typical, albeit rather chunky, teenager of the time who wants nothing so much as to be on The Corny Collins Show — something that seems impossible for a girl of her build and lower-class social standing. Her mother, Edna (Divine, aka Glen Milstead, in his last and most satisfying role), takes in laundry (“I’ve got nothing but hampers of ironing to do — and my diet pill is wearing off!”), and her father, Wilbur (Jerry Stiller, father of Ben), runs a joke shop.
Tracy’s definitely out of her league, but goodness and talent prevail and she finds herself the star of the show, despite the machinations of snooty Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) and her even worse parents (hysterically played by Sonny Bono and Deborah Harry). Along the way, Waters tackles civil rights and racial myths — with the kind of humor only he could imagine.
A genuine cult classic that gets better with repeat viewings.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke
[Walk-In Theatre, sponsored by Orbit DVD and the merchants of West Asheville’s Bledsoe Building, presents Hairspray on Friday, Sept. 9 at dusk in the parking lot behind the Bledsoe Building. Free, but leave pets and alcohol at home.]