Though the flashy nature of the Hairspray musical had turned me away from the Hairspray name for so long, the fact that the original film is a John Waters feature is more than enough to certify that it needs my viewing. But I can't help but wonder why the film makes such the impact it does. Set during the more racially segregated era of the early 1960's with emphasis being on the conservative lifestyle of the characters as well as the zany fashion of the time, Hairspray nevertheless remains a simplistic and silly comedy that deeply embodies the campy style of John Waters. Perhaps the success of the film lies in the fact that it has such oddball elements of his yet also remains one of his most accessible due to its more lighthearted nature. There is no denying a certain kind of kindhearted charm to the feature and an admiration for its respectful approach to serious subject matter, but there feels like a tonal mismatch blunts the film.
Hairspray aspires to tackle the legitimate drama surrounding the concept of racial segregation in America while also existing as a silly piece of camp cult cinema at the same time, yet there is far greater success in the former than the latter. John Waters succeeds in capturing the complicated nature of racism in America without the melodrama that isolates so many viewers, but there is a sense that its satirical edge is underdeveloped. The satire is one of the many comedic elements of Hairspray that just seem to duck in and out at their own will, creating an experience which really jerks viewers in both directions. The film only has 88 minutes to get through all its material and has to develop its story while poking fun at it with a rather fast pace to capture everything within the timeframe, and it ends up resorting to a lazy narrative to do this. The story itself is thin while the subject matter is relevant, and the film sustains itself with a series of silly characters and some random sketches. This means that the experience is fun in the right parts, but it also creates a tonal inconsistency that clashes with the serious elements of the film. For the right viewer Hairspray is a film which carries a lot of positive messages and delivers them with a loving camp spirit, but given John Waters' status as an auteur it is a challenge to determine how much genuine commentary he wants to make in Hairspray and how much he just wants to laugh at the idiocy of racism.
Nevertheless, there is a far more ambitious satirical edge to Hairspray than in many other John Waters films. The film satirizes contemporary media in the sense that television is used to promote the vanity of popular white culture while legitimate issues of those in the struggle for civil rights are such a foreign concept to people. The entire Civil rights struggle is looked upon in a refreshing context in which the protagonist doesn't question anything about her belief in racial integration, and she spends most of the film engaging with the crowd as friends rather than preaching to everyone about equality. Given that enough films have done this already, it comes in handy that John Waters is not a preacher as he takes a new perspective on things.
John Waters' delightful sense of campy humour is what really carries Hairspray through its slower moments. Being a filmmaker with such a distinctive style, John Waters ensures that his fans can have a good time with the film. This is epitomized by the scene in which Prudence Pingleton wanders through an African-American-centric neighbourhood and reacts with terrified melodrama at the most casual interactions of the locals. There really are some funny moments in Hairspray, even if they are very sporadic over the course of the narrative. The two things that do remain consistent are the actors and the sense of style. Hairspray is packed chock full of colourful costume design, ridiculous hairdos and genuinely nostalgic imagery which certainly makes the glory of the 60's come back to life. The soundtrack is a key supportive factor in all of this.
And Ricki Lake makes for a wonderful lead. Seamlessly working with both the drama and comedy of Hairspray without ever seeming over-the-top or one-dimensional, Ricki Lake pursues her role with the intention to simply have a lot of fun. She does this perfectly as her passionate energy is infectious, making her a lovable carefree protagonist. Being a plus-sized character who never gives her weight a second thought, Ricki Lake's free spirit promotes both bodily positivity and an inspiring outlook on life in general. When it comes to the political themes of the film she has no problem launching into a melodramatic tirade, but it all plays into the humourous glee of the film. Ricki Lake's lighthearted nature is so charming that it is difficult not to be completely captivated by her, and her gorgeous smile just lights up the screen.
Divine is once again a perfect presence in another John Waters film. Adhering to her ridiculous distinctive nature of campy melodrama, Divine whines every word in a monotonous fashion with merciless passion for it. She creates a hilarious mother-daughter chemistry with Ricki Lake, but more notable is the fact that she works alongside notorious comedian Jerry Stiller to create a hilarious husband-and-wife duo. The two share a hilarious engagement with the world around them, both being appropriately over-the-top without detracting from the central focus of the story. Divine proudly makes a strong presence while Jerry Stiller brings his own support to the film, crafting effectively hilarious support for the film.
Sonny Bono and Ruth Brown provide nostalgic enjoyment for audiences while Joanna Havrilla's cheesy nature is utterly perfect. John Waters even makes an effective cameo.
Hairspray's energetic cast and passionate sense of style and fun remind us that John Waters really is a master of camp, though the attempts to maintain effective dramatic commentary end up underdeveloped.
The story is fun & carefree of a plump teen going big time on a teen dance talent show. I personally liked the John Waters quirky touch in this film & found myself chuckling at the oddity of it.
Not as slick & colorful as the new film but I found it rather enjoyable the story has terrific race tolerance message as well.
Lotsa dancin' and retro to the max
Love the Waters style!
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 show 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 series's most popular commodity, the blond, shallow Amber Von Tussle (Vitamin C). Previously repressed in society due to her weight, Tracy soon metamorphoses into a hotbed of confidence, 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 just a month following the movie's release.)
"Hairspray" deepens its cartoonish Technicolor sheen by touching upon the racial attitudes that overtook much of 1960s 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.