Could You Turn That Racket Down? I Am Trying To Iron Here: Hairspray (1988)

It was fun, fun, fun until daddy took the Tbird away, or daddy dressed as your mother, while Jerry Stiller plays your loony father figure.  This is the type of world that is set up in John Waters' vibrant and satirical dance musical that has since been remade, though with far less a sense of the scope and scale of the material in regards to social commentary.  As much as the film could be seen as a parody of a time gone by, played up to the most campy of proportions, I would contest that Hairspray is as much a love letter to an era as can possibly exist, incorporating sock hops and sixties era Motown B-sides in a way that is both earnest and forward looking.  It is no surprise that Jon Waters as a filmmaker is often lumped in with David Lynch as both seem highly concerned with looking at the space of America that is neither completely abject, or wholly advanced in their privilege.  Indeed, Hairspray while far from a 'normal' film does manage to inquire as to what happens when the intersection between a cinematic identity and the viewers of the film is far less distant and perhaps more similar than initially acknowledged.  John Waters is a rare breed of filmmaker, a provocateur of sorts, who also seems to want not to condemn those around him, but to make them reflect--often through humor--the absurd barriers they have put up around themselves and their families, showing through bodily performance that issues such as weight, gender, race and even class can become traversable when a dialogue is ignited, one that calls attention to the absurdity of such restrictions and dismissals in favor of inclusion.  Dancing to John Waters is one of a variety of expressive means to challenge a status quo, one that is dealt with in focused and layered ways, unlike more contemporary youth musicals, most notably the remake of this film, but more incoherently and problematically in works like High School Musical.  While it is quite possible that John Waters will find this work to be swept under the rug in relationship to some of his more divisive and cringe inducing films, one cannot help but find the love and passion put into this work outright endearing and more than engaging.

Hairspray focuses on the daily life of teenage girl Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) a girl who aspires to dance with Corny Collins (Shawn Thompson) on his self-titled show.  While Tracy is considered larger than the average performer on the show, her noted skills on the dance floor and unbridled sense of passion lead her to attempt to break onto the show by attending various dance hall competitions and tryouts.  While Tracy's parents are supportive of her decisions, particularly her mother Edna (Divine) they have trouble supporting her endeavors as she is constantly tied to domestic labor, while her father Wilbur (Jerry Stiller) puts in long hours at the joke shop they run from the first floor of their two story house.  Needless to say, Tracy must rely on her own drive and the help of her friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers) to make her name known, a task that proves successful when her dance skills are finally noticed.  Were it not enough for Tracy to break the mold of the traditional dancing teenage girl on The Corny Collins Show by her body image alone, her own outspoken opinions in regards to desegregation come to a point of conflict with one of the shows most popular dancers Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) and her equally stubborn parents Franklin (Sonny Bono) and Velma (Deborah Harry).  When Tracy's large hair becomes a distraction in school, a vindictive teacher places her into the special education class at the school, where she meets up with the son of the local African-American DJ Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown) thus setting into motion a plan to undermine the entire act of segregation on The Corny Collins Show while also seeking out a method to show Amber as the fraud she truly proves to be.  This involves a series of protests and even the temporary jailing of Tracy, but with the help of the entire community and the cheering on of her friends, Tracy is able to not only win the local competition for best female dancer on the show, but she too proves to help the onset of desegregation on the show, even finding herself a boyfriend in the process, her original desire for joining the show in the first place.

 Many films that center around desegregation become incredibly problematic in their desire to assert the presence and aid of white people in the move towards desegregation.  While there were certainly a considerable amount of people who were not of color, helping to push forward the Civil Rights movement, films like The Long Walk Home, Mississippi Burning and more recently the wildly offensive The Help all seem comfortable suggesting that such endeavors were solely the result of white help.  Hairspray almost mockingly tackles such a narrative, by purposefully making the while characters irrelevant to the shifting social change around them, merely figures in a larger narrative, even when they claim to be in favor of such engagements.  The language used by the characters in these respective and idyllic films is often lifted from a  contemporary rhetoric, one that rarely reflects the era, even for a person well intended at the time.  Waters makes such that his film, without being terribly insensitive still manages to locate the dialogue of the sixties as it would have reflected a town traversing the large barrier of emerging desegregation.  I would argue that much of this is afforded by the choice of a somewhat seemingly simple space like a dance show to consider issues of racism.  Since it was a medium of popular culture, one that was also already heavily influenced by the music of the African-American culture it resulted in a rather intriguing cultural milieu that was open to the removal of racial boundaries, because it already existed musically.  The film does allow the white characters who are in favor of desegregation a few moments of confusion, as is evidenced when Tracy and Penny contest a police officer who is refusing to allow an African-American into the The Corny Collins recording, however, where another film would have followed this with an absurd bit of grandstanding on the part of the white character, it moves onto the next sequence while the African-American characters engage in their own initial protest.  Waters film makes sure that viewers know that even if white individuals helped end desegregation, it is purely a relational endeavor and no sense of them as the savior or individual who should be solely praised emerges.

Key Scene:  The line dancing number is some rather minimalist choreography that is executed to great zeal.

This is a delightful little film that is well worth renting.

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