Retrospective: Hairspray – Let’s Dance

If Polyester wasn’t a big enough jump to the mainstream, Waters’ followed with his most PC film, and arguably most successful film, Hairspray. The film did modestly well at the box office (by John Waters standards it did incredibly well) grossing $8 million, most likely due to its wider appeal. Once again Divine stars, but this time is relegated to a smaller supporting role, where he is not required to eat dog faeces or rub dead fish on his body (which is a pity). Divine is joined by several big names including Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono and Jerry Stiller, with a couple of the Dreamlanders appearing in cameo roles. The film receieved a welcome return to the spotlight after being adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, and then adapted into an equal entertaining 2007 cinematic update starring John Travolta and Zac Efron.

Hairspray takes us to 1963 Baltimore, where plump teenager, Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) achieves local fame after appearing on dance program,  The Corny Collins Show. Tracy soon discovers the injustice of racial segregation and helps in the ensuing battle for equality.

Waters’ presents us with a fusion of music and dance (although never falling into the category of musical), all choreographed with expert precision and accuracy. Even the music selection of Hairspray is likely to fill you with a sense of warm hearted nostalgia, boasting such classics as Shake a Tail Feather and Town Without Pity. Everything about Hairspray is soaked in this kitsch nostalgia from the outfits and hairstyles to the lavish set designs. Waters’ clearly has a real love for this period and music.

Hairspray has an important message at its’ heart – the main focus being the condemnation of racism. Waters’ captures the small mindedness of those against integration through larger than life satirical performances from Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono and a de-dragged Divine. General themes of equality prevail throughout – Tracy and her best friend, Penny are not your typical popular girls – never quite meeting the stereotypical pretty girl image. We are therefore immediately on the side of the outsiders, watching them break down these barriers gradually, from the very moment Tracy takes to the dancefloor at The Corny Collins Show.

This is by far Waters’ most accessible film – it is an enjoyable slice of camp nostalgia with an important message at its heart. Ricki Lake ably leads the film as the likeable, sweet and gutsy Tracy. This would be Lake’s first collaboration with Waters’ going on to star in all but one of his later features. Unfortunately, Divine may be in two roles, but he is still criminally underused – the role of Edna Turnblad is far less memorable than any of the star’s prior work with Divine being pushed to the sidelines. This is somewhat unfortunate considering that it would be Waters and Divine’s last collaboration.
The physical trashiness of Water’s previous work has been completely subverted into the roles of racist, scheming Velma (Debbie Harry) and Franklin Von Tussle (Sonny Bono), playing similar types of characters to those made iconic by David Lochary and Mink Stole in Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. Harry and Bono are a welcome addition to the world of John Waters, although the roles are little more than extended cameos.

The humour of Hairspray certainly falls second to the narrative but there are occasional laughs, most notably when Tracy and co. encounter a slightly deranged beatnik couple played by Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek. However at it’s heart there is an important political message and there is enough camp nostalgia to make the ride enjoyable.Waters would continue on a similar trend in his next film Cry Baby.

Next: Cry Baby
Previous: Polyester, Desperate Living, Female Trouble, Pink Flamingos