Hairspray (1988)

Rates: * * * * 1/2

Why Did I Watch It? From the classic film club watch list.

Cast, crew, etc.

Trailer

Baltimore, 1963: all the teens are going crazy for The Corny Collins Show, an American jukebox program where the city’s attractive white kids dance off to the popular hits of the day. Enter Tracey Turnblad: a ‘pleasantly plump’ girl from the wrong side of the tracks, ready to dance and fight racial segregation.

John Waters’ delerious satire of main street USA has an off kilter ethic that could only be based on personal experience. This is an outsider’s perspective, making fun of the beautiful rich kids that wouldn’t want anything to do with him. But here is what distinguishes Waters’ takedown from others of this type; as much as he sees the limitations of life in the suburbs, and as much as he knows he doesn’t fit in there, he also kinda loves it.

‘Hairspray’ is simultaneously a criticism and a celebration; mainstream American consumer culture is ridiculous, but ridiculous fun, and this film’s enthusiasm for it is infectious. Everything depicted is askew, but not in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable; the loud colours, wild outfits, ridiculous names and exaggerated emotions are just a kind of everyday theatre of the absurd.

Which is not to say that the film shies away from more serious beats. People of colour are not welcome on Corny Collins’ show, apart from one Sunday a month, which Tracey adopts as her cause once she starts to gain popularity as a dancer. Waters walks a deft line on this topic; treating it earnestly, making his points, while also having his characters get down as often as possible. The surprising topicality of this plotline is another reminder how long society has been dealing with these same questions.

Ricki Lake as Tracey Turnblad

Ricki Lake, who I always knew best from her talk show, is a bundle of likable energy; an excellent performance and a really terrific character. Her Tracey is someone who knows and likes herself, and won’t apologise for any of her supposed shortcomings; a role model, that we should all be looking up to. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Jerry Stiller, Waters regulars, and a couple of star cameos from the music biz. And Waters himself is a riot in a dual part; playing an aggressive child psychologist/de-programmer, and the demented head of KMMZ, the TV station where most of the action takes place.

Also: There is a dead ringer for Janeane Garofalo who plays a character named ‘Beatnik Chick’.

A really fun time, and a lot of ideas delivered super economically with lashings of high camp style.

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