John Waters’s ascent to the mainstream was always unavoidable. Though a trash king at the start of his career, even his earliest pictures bear a distinct, giddy sort of black comedy painless to like, despite gross-outs that infamously include dog poop consumption and chicken murder. With a fondness for small-town hang-ups and a preoccupation with tying them all up into wacky satire, Waters’s career has been diverse, always leaning toward the idea of reinvention. This knack for risk-taking is something that often channels into lucrative directing careers, as evidenced by the rags to riches stories of disparate filmmakers from Gus Van Sant to Christopher Nolan.
Hairspray (1988), Waters's first foray into film commercial audiences could accept, is arguably the high point in his career, a nimble mixture of his old values and the values of the orthodox audience he was, at the time, so primed to impress.
I prefer Waters when he’s rabid and in your face — I’d take Serial Mom or Polyester any day over Cry-Baby — but I cannot deny the shining jewel that is Hairspray, strung together to alternately parody and pay homage to the 1960s rock musical with wit and color.
In it, then-newcomer Ricki Lake portrays Tracy Turnblad, a pleasantly plump high school girl who dreams of being a more relatable subversion of the Shelley Fabares and Deborah Walleys of the time. Her favorite TV program is The Corny Collins Show (loosely based upon the Buddy Deane Show), a teenage dance series she strives to land herself on.
And, against the odds, she does, finding her way onto the set with such notability that she ends up upstaging the show’s most popular commodity, the blond, shallow Amber Von Tussle (Vitamin C). Previously repressed due to her weight, Tracy soon transforms into something of a hotbed of body positivity, becoming a plus-size model, grabbing the attention of Amber’s boyfriend (Michael St. Gerard), and even filling the role of a civil rights activist after The Corny Collins Show proves itself to be pro-segregation.
Quick, lively, and campy in the ways only a stage show could be (which it has actually become in recent years), Hairspray is an offbeat delight that struts its stuff to the beat of its own drum, infectious in its music and comedy. This is the film Waters was made to make, adjoining his love of the nostalgia of the 1950s and ‘60s and his liking of the aberrant with wide appeal. It also features excellent performances from the soon-to-be-big Lake and Waters’s favorite drag queen, Divine, the former bubbly yet courageous, the latter easily able, as always, to run away with scenes like a charisma jacker. (Tragically, this was Divine’s last film role before his untimely death.)
Hairspray deepens its cartoonish Technicolor sheen by touching upon the racial attitudes that overtook much of '60s Baltimore, and though its commentary is about as meaningful as something you’d find in a middle school history textbook, it makes it more than just a sentimental bop. But the film is a spirited treasure and is a must-see for those who aren’t so eager to view Waters’s more outrageous works; the 2007 remake, while superb, certainly cannot compare to the randy, droll personality of the original. B