“Hairspray” (opening Friday at selected theaters) is a deliriously fast and funny satire of the ‘60s that marks John Waters’ best shot yet at mainstream audiences.
In the 15 years since Baltimore’s maestro of poor taste made his notorious underground classic, “Pink Flamingos,” he has wavered between morbidity and blandness in an attempt to move beyond his original success. Now all his experimenting has paid off in a film that combines nostalgic spoof with a social consciousness that’s as unexpected as it is smashingly effective.
Remember the lacquered beehive and other bouffant hair styles of the early ‘60s? Waters’ screenplay takes us back to the summer of 1963, that last season of innocence, when beehives were all the rage--even in Baltimore, where they were frowned upon by high school teachers and principals. All the rage, too, were the twist, the mashed potato and the Madison--performed daily on Baltimore’s answer to “American Bandstand,” “The Corny Collins Show.”
This after-school TV dance party has turned its participants into local celebrities, complete with stage mothers and ruthless attitudes toward new competition. One of the show’s most ardent fans is Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), a sensational dancer with a bubbly personality, whose best friend, Penny (Leslie Ann Powers), has to urge her to audition because Tracy is, in her own description, “pleasingly plump.”
Tracy is such a warm and affectionate dynamo that she’s unstoppable, dethroning the show’s popularity queen, the snooty but pretty Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick). With pride and humility, Tracy loves her new and astonishing teen stardom, yet beneath her ample bosom beats an integrationist’s heart.
In his zany cross between a teen pic and a message movie, Waters juxtaposes his spoofing of passing fads with a skewering of enduring racism. Only Waters could find an equation between the absurdity of a hair style or a dance craze and the absurdity of oppressing people just because they happen to be black.
In a totally original and authentic way, Waters suggests what’s been tugging at American kids off and on for the past quarter of a century: What do you do, go to the prom or go to the demonstration? Leave it to Waters, too, to resolve this conflict with a final burst of exuberant hilarity coupled with a new underlying seriousness. “Hairspray” is a triumph of camp sensibility at its most perceptive and least precious.
And Waters has assembled a deliciously amusing cast: Divine makes Tracy’s immense mother a nice hausfrau chained to her ironing board until she is liberated by her daughter’s stardom. Divine also plays Arvin Hodgepile, a racist radio station owner.
Jerry Stiller is Tracy’s sweet, loving father, proprietor of the HarDeeHarHar Joke Store. Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono are Amber’s silly, bigoted nouveau riche parents. (Waters’ longtime art director, Vincent Peranio, had a field day decorating the von Tussles’ glitzy pasteled row house). Singer Ruth Brown plays Motormouth Maybell, dance judge for the “Corny Collins Show” and earth mother to the kids of black Baltimore. Michael St. Gerard is Amber’s amiable Elvis look-alike boyfriend.
Also important in the film are Shawn Thompson as Fabian carbon Corny Collins, Mink Stole as his loyal assistant and Clayton Prince as Maybell’s son. Pia Zadora is terrific in a cameo as a bongo-banging, reefer-smoking, “Howl"-spouting beatnik who irons her hair.
For all his well-known love of kitsch, Waters actually reveals the most exquisite taste imaginable as he uses humor to attack racism and presents a hefty heroine in such a way that you laugh with her and not at her.
In a very real sense, “Hairspray” is Waters’ most daring movie. It took more courage and judgment to make a comedy like “Hairspray” (rated PG for a few four-letter words) with its bigots and fat people than it did to make “Pink Flamingos” with its famous shocking moment involving dog feces. John Waters has matured without losing a single iota of his outrageousness.
A New Line Cinema presentation. Executive producers Robert Shaye, Sara Risher. Co-producers Stanley F. Buchthal, John Waters. Line producer Robert Maier. Writer-director John Waters. Camera David Insley. Music Kenny Vance. Art director Vincent Peranio. Costumes and makeup Van Smith. Choreographer Edward Love. Film editor Janice Hampton. With Ricki Lake, Divine, Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, Jerry Stiller, Ruth Brown, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Leslie Ann Powers, Michael St. Gerard, Shawn Thompson, Mink Stole, Pia Zadora, Ric Ocasek, Clayton Prince, Alan Wendl, Jo Ann Havrilla, Toussaint McCall, Cyrkle Milbourne, Leo Rocca.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).