September 10, 2022
Hairspray (1988)
Grade: 71/100

Director: John Waters
Stars: Ricki Lake, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Leslie Ann Powers

What it's about. Set circa 1962 in Baltimore, Maryland. Tracy (Ricki Lake) is a fun-loving and voluptuous high school student who becomes a regular on the Corny Collins local television dance show. Tracy's parents are Edna (Divine) and Wilbur (Jerry Stiller). Tracy's best friend is cute and daffy Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers).

Tracy's sudden fame comes at the expense of her rival on the Corny Collins show, Amber (Colleen Fitzgerald). Amber is a shallow, ambitious, and vengeful teen with stage mom Velma (Deborah Harry) and exploitative father Franklin (Sonny Bono). Velma's attitude doesn't improve after Tracy steals her dreamboat dancer boyfriend (Michael St. Gerard).

Although the Corny Collins show plays many hit recordings by blacks, the show is not integrated. Tracy and Penny demonstrate to change this, even though Penny has a crazy mother (Jo Ann Havrilla) who doesn't want her to associate with blacks.

Director John Waters has a small role as a lunatic psychiatrist. Pia Zadora (of Santa Clause Conquers the Martians infamy) and Ric Ocasek (lead singer of The Cars) have cameos as beatniks.

How others will see it. I was surprised to learn that Hairspray is not the best known film that John Waters directed. That honor goes to Cry-Baby, which has almost three times the user votes of Hairspray. Cry-Baby was a turning point of Johnny Depp's career, his first step away from conventional roles.

Hairspray does have the highest user rating of any Waters-directed film, excluding Female Trouble (1974), starring (who else but) Divine. Divine died just weeks after the release of Hairspray, just as he had obtained household name status.

Hairspray was a rare commercial success for John Waters, whose previous films avoided losing money because they had cost almost nothing to make. It drew critical praise as well. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and it managed seven nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, in all the top categories except for Best Male Lead and Best Cinematography.

The kitschy, politically correct period fun of Hairspray continued its cultural influence as a Broadway musical in 2002 and a hit film remake in 2007, with John Travolta famously in Divine's role.

Today at, the 1988 version of Hairspray has a respectable user rating of 7.0 out of 10, which climbs to 7.4 out of 10 among the independently minded demographic of women over 45. The user reviews are favorable if not fawning. Negative reviews come mostly from those who see the film as a John Waters sellout, or prefer the better-known 2007 remake. Some are unimpressed by Waters' take on psychiatry, or the beatnik stereotypes.

How I felt about it. Hairspray was the only film role ever for Leslie Ann Powers. One wonders how she got the role, and why she never made another movie.

Is the movie too silly? Does it get carried away? Well, of course, but it is a comedy. Does the film's message, whether it be anti-bullying or equal rights, get lost in the silliness? No, those messages remain clear.

It's hard not to think of Hairspray as anything other than the one John Waters movie where everything came together. John Waters was himself a Baltimore high school student in 1962, and making the movie must have been nostalgic for him, and provided the opportunity to create an alternate reality for his hometown.

My favorite here isn't Divine or Ricki Lake, though they are good. Colleen Fitzgerald is a hoot as the would-be in-club teen leader. It was her first film role, and she later become an alternative music star (as Vitamin C) before becoming an executive at the cable channel Nickelodeon.