Film review: Hairspray (1988)

If I had to choose one person from the world of film to spend an evening talking to, it would be no contest. Director John Waters would win by a mile. I can easily see myself spending hours talking to him. This is despite the fact that I had seen only one of his films before (Pecker (1998)) and didn’t think much of it. I had tended to steer clear of his films because I had heard that they sometimes devolved into gross-out humor which I avoid.

Waters takes pride in his reputation for bad taste and sees himself as a connoisseur of it, saying on various occasions “To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste” and “I pride myself on the fact that my work has no socially redeeming value.”

Waters has been all over the media map recently because although he hasn’t made a film in 10 years, he has just published a book based on his decision a couple of years ago to hitchhike all the way from his home in Baltimore to San Francisco. The book is the story of that journey. Even without seeking, I came across about four different radio interviews about his book and his work and in each one he was original and funny. Waters has an unusual and wry take on life in general, an impish self-deprecating sense of humor, and seems to have a deep respect and affection for people whatever their background. (You can listen to the interview on NPR here.)

As a result of hearing all these interviews, I decided to watch over the weekend his first commercial success Hairspray (1988) that was transformed into a hit Broadway musical in 2002 and in turn spawned a 2007 musical film.

It was fun. Set in 1962 in racially segregated Baltimore, it tells the story of ‘pleasantly plump’ teenager Tracy Turnblad, the daughter of lower middle class parents, who is an excellent dancer, practicing her skills in front of the TV while watching dancing shows.

We remember the sixties as a turbulent time with the Vietnam war, race riots, and civil rights struggles creating political unrest. But it was also a very silly time with women and men obsessed with their hair, using copious amounts of gels and hairspray to keep their elaborate stylings locked in place. In the case of women this style often took the form of enormous elaborate bouffant concoctions.

Popular in those days were TV shows that featured a DJ playing hit records to a roomful of young dancers. People would watch these shows at home and, like Tracy, dance along with them. To avoid repetition, this required new dances all the time and this format spawned a series of novelty songs, each associated with a particular dance, and these shows helped to make those dances widely known, at least until the next novelty song came along. Songs and dances like the Twist, the Mashed Potato, the Limbo Rock, the Hippy Hippy Shake, and the Watusi will be familiar to people of my generation, though likely unheard of (except perhaps for the Twist) by anyone under the age of fifty.

Turnblad’s ambition is to be on the local Baltimore version of this show and once on, her dancing skills, cheerful personality, and open-mindedness about race make her a fan favorite and the mortal enemy of the woman who had seen herself as the queen of that particular realm. In combating her rival, Turnblad and her friends also take on the challenge of integrating the dance show. While that rivalry forms the storyline of the film, Waters uses it to take shots at race bias, class bias, and weight bias and never misses an opportunity to highlight the kitsch fashions of that time that seem so outlandish now. He also throws in a passing shot of a black nun kissing a white nun, which is controversial even now, let alone in 1988. Where was Bill Donahue, that guardian of the Catholic Church’s reputation, then?

Here’s the trailer.

Jerry Stiller, George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld, appears as Tracy’s father. The late Divine, one of Waters’s favorite performers, appears as both Tracy’s mother and the bigoted male TV station owner. Sonny Bono appears as Tracy’s rival’s father and reveals himself to be a mediocre actor.

This film reflects the times in which it was set in that it is deeply political and at the same time very silly. And campy fun. My daughter tells me that the 2007 musical remake starring John Travolta in Divine’s role is very good and I may well watch it too.

Here is a recent appearance of Waters on The Colbert Report. It is hilarious and you see all the qualities of Waters that make him such an engaging and likable character.

(This clip aired on June 10, 2014. To get suggestions on how to view clips of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report outside the US, please see this earlier post. If the videos autoplay, please see here for a diagnosis and possible solutions.)


  1. colnago80 says

    Sonny Bono appears as Tracy’s rival’s father and reveals himself to be a mediocre actor.

    Interesting considering that the former Congresscritter’ ex-wife, Cher, is a much better actress then one might imagine and has put in a number of good performances in dramatic roles.

  2. says

    One of my favorite guilty pleasures. It is the movie that launched Ricki Lake’s career, who starred in several more of Waters movies.

    Waters had a couple of good movies with more mainstream tastes: Cry-Baby with Lake and Johnny Depp is fun, especially if you like picking out cameos. Serial Mom is a hoot.

  3. says

    I saw a local theatre do their version of the Broadway musical, so my comment is from what I saw there, though I would highly suspect it applies to the original movie and all.

    The one “issue” I had was that of the white hero. The problem that it has to be the white person who comes in and makes the world a better place. I’m not sure if there’s a good way around that, though. It seems like it could be a bit of a catch-22. How do you get white people to watch a movie if it doesn’t have a white hero? And if white people don’t watch the movie, then they won’t get to see the shots at racial bias.

  4. JustaTech says

    Serial Mom was filmed (in part) at my church in Baltimore. To this day the thought of all those stuffed shirts (Episcopalians) at the permire makes me giggle. I learned several naughty words from that movie, even if I did have to have my mom explain what they meant.

  5. AnotherAnonymouse says

    I was in college in Baltimore when the movie came out in 1988. My roommate’s parents confirmed for me that the styles, the music, and the attitudes are all very, very Baltimore. Mrs. Turnblad existed in hundreds of copies in the blue-collar women in Baltimore. In the 1980s, the people I encountered in Baltimore were very quirky and very kind.

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