Hairspray ★★★★

Watched as part of the July 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
My list | Dex B's master list
#19: A film featuring Harris Glenn Milstead a.k.a. Divine

2017 movie viewings, #118. Believe it or not, despite being a fan of John Waters for decades now, this was the very first time I've ever watched his 1988 Hairspray; and that's because, like a lot of art-school undergraduates who originally found this director under those circumstances, I've always been a fan of the dirty, transgressive John Waters, the one who once convinced his '70s cross-dressing friend Divine to literally eat a very real dog turd on-camera for his infamous cult film Pink Flamingos, and as a college student I found the idea of a cleaned-up, PG-rated Waters to be reprehensible, which became even more so in my thirties when the movie was turned into a hit Broadway musical for the bridge-and-tunnel tourist crowd, amplified even further in my forties when the musical version was itself made into a movie that grossed more than every other Waters film in his career combined, eventually even adapted for television in a clean and shiny Millennial-friendly High School Musical-esque version.

And indeed, Hairspray is a record of the notoriously prickly Waters as he had never been before, and has never been again since; charmingly nostalgic, that is, in an earnest and irony-free way, without the Postmodernist transformation of '50s pop-culture into something much more sinister and disgusting that marks literally every other movie he's ever made. This is instead a surprisingly straightforward look back at a real event from Waters' childhood that had a lasting impression on him; namely, the rise in popularity of of the actual Mid-Century Modernist Buddy Deane Show afternoon teenybopper dance program, based out of Waters' hometown of Baltimore and that back in the day competed neck-and-neck with Dick Clark's then Philadelphia-based Bandstand.

Buddy Deane eventually went down in flames, because of the racist producer's refusal to integrate black dancers into the show at a time when integration was getting shaped up into a national law; this is what allowed Dick Clark's desegregated version to go national (changing the name of his show at that point to American Bandstand), which is why that show went on to become one of the most recognizable pop artifacts of the 20th century, while Buddy Deane is barely remembered anymore*. Waters' film is essentially a straightforward fictional version of the story, as seen through the eyes of a sassy overweight girl who dreams to one day be on the show herself (Ricki Lake, whose resulting career was essentially kickstarted by this role), with a huge amount of the film's running time devoted simply to non-ironic showcases of the '50s and early-'60s dance moves that the teen Waters and his closeted gay friends were into at the time, the main reason this movie translated so well into a family-friendly Broadway musical.

[*And a fun piece of trivia: Buddy Deane himself has a cameo in Hairspray, playing the elderly reporter who confronts Maryland's governor in the driveway of his mansion near the end of the film.]

All is not lost, though; for despite Waters wanting this to be a sweet and earnest homage to a period from his youth he looks back upon fondly, he still wasn't able to completely exorcise the subversive filth monster who ultimately lurks inside him. See, for example, the hilarious montage of a racist suburban mother who wanders into Baltimore's black neighborhood one day to track down her interracial-dating daughter; and of course it's impossible to ignore such deliciously politically-incorrect lines as when Lake's high-school rival threatens her during gym class -- "I'LL GET THAT FAT RETARD!" -- which rivals even the best lines from Waters' X-rated cult classics (including my favorite of all time, when Kathleen Turner sends a threatening letter in Serial Mom that reads, "I'LL GET YOU, PUSSYFACE!!!")

So Hairspray is not all bad news for fans of early Waters classics like Female Trouble, Polyester and Mondo Trasho; but certainly it's a huge departure from the kinds of movies he usually makes, not badly done at all but certainly a film that will make many roll their eyes and wonder when they can go back to holiday family beatings around the Christmas tree. ("I just wanted some fucking go-go boots! WHERE ARE MY FUCKING GO-GO BOOTS!" "Not on Christmas! No, no, not on Christmas!!!") I'm incredibly glad that Waters has ended up with one big hit to keep him financially comfortable for the rest of his life; but I doubt I will ever be revisiting Hairspray again, nor will I ever watch the even more mainstream-friendly adaptations than this one.

Jason Pettus liked this review