Early '60s teen Tracy (Ricki Lake) runs home from school every day with her friend Penny to catch the afternoon dance show, hosted by Corny Collins (a host of a cool dance show with the name "Corny?"). Despite Tracy's weight, she's a good dancer -- better, even, than the reigning queen of the Council, Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick). So when the opportunity arises to audition for the Council, Tracy takes it and quickly becomes a show favorite, much to Amber's distress.
Although the story is nominally about Tracy and her struggle to become Queen of the Auto Show, the second plot involving the desegregation of the TV show is funnier and more interesting. Fortunately, the two plots are well integrated (so to speak), so when Tracy triumphs, the civil rights activists do too. It's a groovy, happenin' kind of film, and easily Waters' most accessible movie so far. (Waters fans, forgive us -- we thought Serial Mom a bit too self-mocking to top Hairspray for general appeal.)
The other characters in the movie deserve our attention as well, which is definitely to Waters' credit as a director. This film makes us believe that modern movies can have character actors, too. Whether it be Waters' own cameo as the Psychiatrist, Divine's double role as Mrs. Turnblad and station manager Arvin Hodgepile, or Pia Zadora as the Beatnik Chick, there's a new face and a new personality in nearly every scene.
Waters also recreates the world of early 1960's high school with a more than slightly sardonic eye. Tracy's exile to the "special ed" homeroom and the subseqent dodge ball scene presents school as Waters must have seen it: noisy and brutish, with no guess as to the direction from which the next blow will come. (This is perhaps a bit melodramatic, but boy, we had fun writing that sentence!)
If you are new to the world of John Waters, Hairspray is a good place to start. It won't necessarily prepare you for Pink Flamingos or Mondo Trasho, but it gives you a good feel for the playful mind from which those movies originate. Just don't blame us when Divine starts eating... nahh, why spoil it for you?
Review date: 7/31/97
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