The tone of John Waters’ Hairspray is set the first time the movie shows Divine in a housedress. Throughout the 1970s, Waters and Divine (born Harris Glenn Milstead) spoofed Hollywood glamour and middle-class fashion in underground films designed to be aggressively distasteful, meant to be shown at midnight to audiences of stoners and degenerates. Hairspray is as artificial as any of Waters’ prior movies, ripping off the visual style of television and trashy melodramas with a none-too-coy wink. But it’s also meant to be at least a little bit real, reflecting Waters’ own boyhood experiences. So the first time Divine shows up in Hairspray, he isn’t wearing a ballgown or a suburbanite’s Capri pants. he’s sweating over an ironing board, looking like an ordinary, exhausted working-class mom.
When Hairspray came out in 1988, it was the biggest production Waters had been involved with up to that point, and his first PG-rated movie. In a way, it’s Waters’ version of Barry Levinson’s Diner: a personal memoir of growing up in Baltimore in the late 1950s and early 1960s. While it’s corny by design, Hairspray also aims to get at something truthful, about the various kinds of prejudice weighing down the city circa 1963, and how youthful optimism and music made a difference, if only in the lives of those kids craving some kind of diverse, progressive community.
Divine plays Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, and it’s a testament to how memorable he is in the role that when Waters later allowed the movie to be adapted into a Broadway musical (which itself was later adapted into a movie), Edna was again played by a man in a dress, and continues to be in most productions. Hairspray is really the story of chubby high-schooler Tracy Turnblad, played by then-newcomer Ricki Lake. Tracy makes it onto the televised teen dance program The Corny Collins Show, and she challenges the rich kids’ notions of physical beauty, while simultaneously advocating for integration. But it’s Divine’s Edna, huge and plain, who provides some continuity with the John Waters of old, without throwing Hairspray’s overall mainstream quality out of whack.
Divine isn’t the only familiar Waters element in Hairspray. Always partial to the gross-out, Waters throws in a disgusting pimple-popping scene, and a shot of one of the rich, pretty kids puking after going on a kiddie ride at the amusement park. And throughout Hairspray, Waters dispenses with sensitivity. Tracy and Edna shop at a boutique called the “Hefty Hideaway,” and when Tracy gets in trouble at school, she’s punished by being transferred to a Special Education class. Waters even makes fun of white folks’ attitude toward black folks in two ways: by inserting an exaggerated comic setpiece mocking one middle-class white woman’s panicked detour through a black neighborhood, and by showing Tracy and her friends’ civil-rights activism as somewhat shallow and naïve.
But ultimately, the dominant vibe for Hairspray is one of sweetness and optimism. It’s touching to see the striking-looking Divine play at “normalcy” as Edna, and to witness Tracy’s relentless can-do-ism. Waters is conjuring up the bigotry of Baltimore’s past, but he’s also remembering how great the music was back when he was a teenager, and how much he enjoyed all the rituals of primping and dancing that seemed to cut across the lines of class, gender, sexuality, and race. Waters also remembers that life wasn’t always easy for the pretty kids, who had the pressure of trying to be cool while also exhibiting good moral judgment—goals that were often in conflict.
Hairspray isn’t slick. The line-dancing is rarely in perfect unison, and the plot and performances are cartoonish—intentionally so, though that doesn’t make the movie any easier on Waters newcomers. But there’s an infectiousness about Hairspray even now—and an infectiousness with a purpose. Hairspray doesn’t pretend Tracy Turnblad solves racism (or classism, for that matter) when she starts pushing for black kids to dance with white kids on Corny Collins. But Tracy’s pep does make her ideas more acceptable, which spreads them further. Waters encapsulates this whole idea in a novelty dance, “The Bug,” which Tracy kicks off at the end of the movie while wearing a dress covered in drawings of roaches. As she stands in the center of a circle of dancers, Tracy passes “the bug” to the next dancer, and everyone gets to take their turn in the center. It’s a moving image, made all the more effective because it sprung from the mind and heart of a proud weirdo.
The back of the new Hairspray Blu-ray promises only “vintage interviews with John Waters, Ricki Lake, and Divine,” which vastly understates the goodies on this disc, though they are all carried over from earlier DVD editions. The old interviews in question include a few extended audio recordings of Waters and Divine talking about the latter’s brushes with celebrity. There are video interviews with Waters’ childhood friends (and other people who remember The Buddy Deane Show, the real Baltimore TV dance show that inspired Hairspray), and excerpts from several Hairspray-related press appearances, including a Baltimore local news piece about Waters that’s surprisingly probing.
But the main extra here—unmentioned anywhere on the box—is a commentary track by Waters and Lake, recorded separately. There isn’t much of Lake, although during her occasional contributions, she mentions how uncomfortable it was for her to gyrate suggestively when she was still a virgin, and how she struggled to maintain a consistent weight when spending most of her days exercising on the dance floor. The reason Lake is so underrepresented on the track, though, is because Waters is a raconteur who holds court about which parts of Hairspray were pulled from his own memories. He closes his comments with a long, moving reminiscence about the last time he saw Divine, who died not long after the movie came out, already knowing he had a hit. That’s how—mere minutes after Hairspray’s heartwarming final scenes—Waters gets viewers choked up all over again.