Thursday, 12 August 2010

Fetch Me My Diet Pills, Would You?

I've put off watching John Waters' Hairspray for years, because I was afraid of not liking it. I was afraid that something so well known by someone so notorious wouldn't interest me. What I'd seen of it didn't really appeal to me, and I thought it safer to never know then to actually not like the film. I don't know why I came to this conclusion, but I did. 

Doesn't she just look delightful?

Now, I've seen it. And no, I didn't psychotically love it, but I sure didn't hate it either. It's quite an enjoyable romp, camped up a fair bit, but still packing a punch when it comes to acceptance and integration in the heady years of the AIDS crisis. Yes, that whole black subplot is a metaphor, boys and girls. I don't know if that came through in the 2007 version (I haven't seen it, and probably won't.)

Ricki Lake (that's right, Ricki Lake) plays Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teen in 1960s America, obsessed, with her best friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers), with a television show called The Corny Collins Show, where basically people go on and dance. That's all they do. And Tracy wants to be on it. She auditions and gets in, much to the chagrin of her parents Edna (Divine) and Wilbur (Jerry Stiller.) She becomes more and more popular within the show, angering the reigning queen Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick), and begins to style her hair bigger and bigger, with lots of hairspray (ba-doom), to the point where she is sent to special education classes as punishment. There, she meets a bunch of black people (in 1960s residual racist America, remember) and falls into an anti-segregation movement, using her newfound fame and popularity to influence.

The themes regarding race are very strong, but this isn't a retrospective film examining the prior wrongs of society towards a minority race. Waters is far too modern for that, and absolutely not subtle enough. This is 1988 America and he has cast a prominent (and quite large) drag queen in the role of the main character's mother, after all. AIDS is really hitting its stride and, while I can't say for sure, not having been present in America at the time, I'm fairly certain there would have been a hell of a lot of homosexual discrimination and homophobia even more rampant than what can often be found today. With the focus on dancing and looks, the camped up nature of the film and the inclusion of Divine, so unapologetically, Hairspray works on the level of metaphor very effectively. It's not particularly subtle, though I'm sure that if you really wanted to you could enjoy the film the way it stands and still punch a homo on the way home.

The film itself does work. It is very entertaining, and the politics, whilst obvious, aren't heavyhanded. Or, not as heaveyhanded as they could have been, at least. The performances are all hysterical, even as they are totally over the top (though I've never really been able to stand watching Stiller for long periods of time... but we do love the inclusion of Deborah Harry) and the story moves along very nicely. It looks fantastic also, big bright colours splashed everywhere gaudily. I can definitely see why it has become a cult classic, and I do look forward to watching it again somewhere down the line, probably distractedly whilst eating popcorn and having a glass of wine with friends. It's the perfect film to have in the background as you focus part of your attention elsewhere. It is complex enough to warrant your attention, but the strokes are broad enough that you can look away without missing anything. 3.5 stars.

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