The man William Burroughs called “The Pope of Trash” is at it again. Yes, John Waters, sleazemaster general, low-budget filmmaker, and Baltimore’s ambassador to the world, has made another movie.
The title, Hairspray, would seem to place the new film safely within Waters’ existing lexicon: his movies include Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Polyester.
But this time out, Waters has sweetened his tone and softened his approach. Hairspray has a full quotient of Waters’ trademark glitz ‘n kitsch, but there’s a nostalgic undertone that warms the movie. It’s set in the Baltimore of 1962, when the resident teenyboppers are frugging to the beat of a local American Bandstand knockoff called The Corny Collins Show, a dance party that brings dozens of pubescent kids to brief regional TV stardom. One girl in particular, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), dreams of becoming a regular on the show.
Not only does Tracy garner a spot on the dance floor, she quickly becomes the new star, even threatening the front-runner status of the witchy Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick) for the coveted “Miss Auto Show 1963” title.
Improbably, Waters welds this goofy little story with a subplot of racial integration. No kidding: Much of the movie is about the kids’ efforts to incorporate black teens as regulars on the show, and not just relegate them to the “Negro Day” on the last Thursday of every month.
It’s an appealing setting for a movie, but don’t get the idea that Waters has gone completely straight on us. He’ll still stop the show for the occasional gross-out (such as the aurally graphic popping of a pimple), and his cast list alone is fairly head-spinning.
For instance, Tracy’s parents are played by the unlikely duo of Jerry Stiller and longtime Waters collaborator Divine. Divine, the corpulent transvestite, also plays the male role of the intolerant TV station manager.
And Amber’s uptight parents, whose house bulges with the ’60s iconography of lava lamps and those paintings of kids with big eyes, are played by Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry (she proudly reminds her daughter that she was once “Miss Soft Crab of 1945”). Some of this doesn’t work as well as it might sound. For instance. the idea of Sonny Bono as the sleazy owner of an amusement park is funny; in truth, it doesn’t really click in the movie. (Sonny is, after all, still Sonny.)
And the roughness of Waters’ directorial style continues. He still doesn’t always know what to do with the camera, and some of the performances are out of sync (his own cameo, as a crazed psychiatrist, is just fine).
But the sloppy patches are finally outpointed by the movie’s sheer likability. The music’s great, the dancing is generous, the hair-dos are towering and fearsome, the dialogue is dizzily campy (school principal to Tracy: “You’re on a one-way ticket to reform school!”).
A high point is the visit to a beatnik parlor, where an artist (the Cars’ Ric Ocasek) and his beat chick (Pia Zadora!) are digging reefer. Eventually Hairspray becomes just too wackily imaginative to resist.
First published in the Herald, February 28, 1988
Who could’ve known the movie would eventually turn into a pop-culture phenom and a Broadway hit? Probably somebody. I don’t recall what my problem was with Sonny Bono in this film, but I said it, so I’ll stand by it, although one should really not question Waters in these matters.