John Waters’ ‘Hairspray’ still stands the test of time
As we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the rip-rollicking 1988 musical with special screenings around the Houses, Hanna Flint explains why it remains a cinematic delight
Saturday 17 June 2023 By Soho House
A few weeks ago, I finished reading John Waters’ novel Liarmouth – a filthy, eccentric and chaotic account of a notorious scammer on the run from both the law and a band of misfits – and it was a hilarious delight. However, returning to Hairspray this week, which is now celebrating its 35th anniversary, is almost like watching a Disney film in comparison.
The 1988 musical comedy is certainly a more family-friendly offering compared to Waters’ trademark oeuvre of explicit excess. Prior to Hairspray, the likes of Female Trouble, Pink Flamingos and Polyester were initially stamped with X ratings. But this poppy 1960s-set escapade is no less subversive because of its then PG (now 12A according to the BBFC) label.
As with all his films, Hairspray is set in his home state of Baltimore, Maryland, and tells the coming-of-age story of white, plus-size teenager Tracy Turnblad seeking stardom on ‘The Corny Collins Show’, a local TV dance program based on the real-life The Buddy Deane Show. As someone who grew up watching The Ricki Lake Show after school on Channel 4, it’s always a thrill to see Lake in acting mode, especially as this vivacious teen which marked her film debut and the beginning of a long collaboration with Waters. Of course, no performer was more of a muse to the filmmaker than Divine, the drag queen who plays Tracy’s mother Edna (as well as a racist TV station owner), but sadly died just three weeks after the film’s release. Hairspray was the first film of Waters where Divine wasn’t the protagonist – the studio nipped the idea of him playing both Tracy and Edna in the bud – but he is no less a central part of what makes this such a fantastic high-camp romp.
Waters has a true knack for both celebrating and mocking a particular cultural milieu with equal flair and fancy. The opening title credits roll over young white dancers with bouffant hair, girls shoving padding in their bras and practising vanilla dance moves, before the cameras roll and it perfectly captures the giddy glamour of a bygone era. When we’re introduced to Tracy and her best friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) – who is always sucking on a gobstopper – their hair is even more bombastically backcombed, and bobs up and down as they run home to watch Corny Collins. Here is where Waters establishes the film’s social temperature. ‘Delinquents if you ask me,’ one of Edna’s laundry customers says about the show the two BFFs are vigorously dancing along to. ‘It ain’t right to be dancing on TV to that coloured music.’
Racial segregation becomes the primary conflict as Tracy is soon the show’s star dancer and rallies for the integration of Black teens to perform beyond the alloted ‘Negro Day’ once a month. Sure, it’s a bit white saviour in delivery, but Waters balances it by satirically punching down on racist conservatism throughout. He even plays a ridiculous, crackpot psychiatrist hired by Penny’s parents to brainwash her into only dating white boys after being caught with the hot Black son of Ruth Brown’s Motormouth Maybelle. Casting the Queen of R&B, as well as Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono as the bigoted parents of Tracy’s nemesis Amber (Colleen Fitzpatrick), adds to the playful richness and resonance of a film using mainstream appeal to grapple with counterculture themes.
Yet the most progressive aspect of Hairspray might be the unapologetic appreciation of fatness. At no point does Tracy ever show insecurity about her figure, even under the projection of her mother’s size anxiety and the insults of skinny dancers on the show. She is ‘pleasantly plump’, loves to eat and becomes a fashion model. And her body positivity inspires Edna and viewers alike to love themselves and be confident in their own beauty and style musing. She also gets the hot guy, setting a romantic precedent that has too infrequently been explored on screen since. Still, while very few girls auditioned for the character in the 1980s, Waters says hundreds of plus-sized actors showed up for the stage musical and subsequent 2007 film adaption of the stage show, proving once again that if you see it, you can be it.
These later screen and stage excursions have somewhat sanitised the more provocative elements of the original, but Hairspray still stands the test of time as a celebrated cinematic escapade of rip-rollicking, fun, humour and optimism – even as racist attitudes and conservative prejudice towards queer communities today flair up. As Waters said himself recently, ‘It’s my most devious movie; we have drag queens, interracial dating, and even Florida hasn’t bitched yet!’
Hairspray is now showing at the Houses; visit our screenings page for our full film schedule.