This week marked the 30th anniversary of the theatrical release for John Waters’ surprise cult classic Hairspray. Prior to the film’s release in 1988, Waters had steadily accrued an infamous reputation for over two decades as being a subversive and vile auteur filmmaker. Waters, for his films such as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble¸ earned labels proclaiming him as “The Prince of Puke” or “The Pope of Trash” which were leveled on him critically by conservative groups and affectionately by fans. Surely, this man could not make a socially conscious musical about integration that would be family friendly.
Hairspray is about a “pleasantly plum” teenager named Tracy Turnblad (portrayed by Ricki Lake) who pursues local fame by becoming a featured dancer on a local teen dance TV show. On The Corny Collings Show, Turnblad uses her newly acquired platform and popularity to rally against the show’s producers and make the show fully integrated. Meanwhile, Turnblad’s snobby rich rival Amber Von Tussle aims to sabotage Turnblad’s chances of winning a local beauty pageant. Turnblad is arrested for inciting a race riot, but ultimately is pardoned by the governor and successfully integrates The Corny Collins Show.
The film was a moderate commercial success upon its initial release. After being released on home video, Hairspray started to gain status as a cult classic. Tracy Turnblad and John Waters would become household names when the film was adapted as a Tony award-winning musical in 2002 and the musical adapted as a musical motion picture in 2007. What started as a modest film that paid homage to Waters’ own childhood watching teeny-bopper dance shows became his biggest accomplishment and elevated him, in his words, as “The Patron Saint of Fat Girls.”
Waters, in interviews over the years, has said he was surprised by the making and success of Hairspray. As mentioned, Waters’ previous films were the epitome of bad taste. His films were only family friendly if you were the Manson Family. Waters has commented that he didn’t set out to make such a broadly accessible film that was a beacon for integrationist championing. He has even joked when the MPAA assigned Hairspray a PG rating that his career was over. Hairspray was the best thing to happen to Waters’ career.
In recent years, in interviews and on stage during his comedic monologues, Waters has talked about his life was a subversive artist. I’ve gone to his shows and heard him address questions about the future of “gross out” filmmakers or who working in film today is a spiritual successor to Waters’ earlier works. And Waters has some very poignant things to say on the topic.
When Waters was making his films prior to Hairspray, he was innovative with his provocation. Not only in content, but in the overall production. Waters had to apply a very auteur approach to his film because no studio would provide funding. So, he had help from his friends who became his go to team. Design, acting, shooting, and everything else was a collaborative effort amongst a small group of iconoclastic friends.
Nowadays, Waters believe, it is too easy to make smut and filth on celluloid. He doesn’t see the appeal to constantly strive to out gross everyone just for the sake of doing it. While his filmmaking was a revolutionary act in those days. Now, it is standard and run of the mill. So, according to Waters, the only way to shock people with subversion is to give them something completely unexpected. And, for him, that was to go clean.
I see a lot of value in that outlook. Constantly doing what people expect of you, especially if what you do increasingly becomes normative, reduces the power of the initial act. You become a character whose scope is limited and defined by what people demand that you provide based on your earlier work. And when an artist gets to that point, things become boring and uninspired. This is why Bob Dylan went electric or why Michael Jordan played baseball. You may or may not be successful with this change, but at least you’re doing what you want to do instead of what everyone else wants you to do.
In that sense, Hairspray has been Waters’ most subversive, and relevant, film to date. His earlier works like Multiple Maniacs and Desperate Living may still make general audiences uncomfortable, but you can go on YouTube and see things that are much worse. Even something that is still shocking such as the dogshit-eating scene in Pink Flamingos can pale in comparison to whatever some teenager pulls up on Reddit. The act of subversion no longer stems from the radical nature of the content itself, but rather the radical nature of the content as it relates to the artist.
I admire John Waters because he does exactly what he wants to do. He hasn’t made a film since 2004 (not without lack of trying), but he continues to find ways to broaden his scope as an artist and influence audiences in new ways. He has become a prolific author and even a sought after public speaker. In 2017, he published a commencement speech he gave at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2015. In the speech, he encourages the graduating class to stir shit and change things from the inside. What that may entail specifically depends on your situation. However, whatever the status quo happens to be, go against it regardless.
The Hairspray musical was a huge hit. The original film, however, did not feature Broadway-style musical numbers. Most of the soundtrack consists of fairly obscure R&B dance songs that Waters grew up with. The dance numbers are fun and impressive and the soundtrack selections give the film extra life.
The original motion picture soundtrack only features one original tune which opens the film and scored against a montage of teenagers and crew putting together The Corny Collins Show. Appropriately titled, “Hairspray” is a saccharine sweet 60s retro throwback done with a 1980s sheen. Sweet sings about a can of hairspray and elevates it as a symbol of teenage rebellion in an age where integration was viewed as a force to threaten white social hierarchy. Mama told Sweet not use it and its just the latest craze, but Sweet has the inspiration to the hairspray all over the nation.
Sweet had been recording music since the age of three and started recording country music in 1974. In her career, she earned critical success but relatively few sales. Interestingly enough, the single Hairspray was the last recording she ever issued. Sweet eventually left music and pursued a career in television production instead.
Waters is currently 71, but he is going strong a cultural iconoclast. He is still provocative at his age, but has a taken a step back to let the kids be the truly innovative rebels. Waters still tours to do comedic monologues and is working on two more books. He has been a later-in-life hero for me and I’m thankful for Hairspray launching him to the popular consciousness where he deserves to be.