‘About as near to ‘family entertainment’ as John Waters has ever come’: Hairspray reviewed in 1988

As Hairspray returns to cinemas for its 35th anniversary, we look back at a Monthly Film Bulletin review of John Waters’s camp teen-pic pastiche, first published in July 1988.

Hairspray (1988)

Barry Levinson this is not, despite the Baltimore setting. Hairspray is Dirty Dancing dressed up in the trash aesthetic so that the self-consciously ‘cult’ audience can have its kicks and eat them too. The plot-rebellious teenagers triumphing over social injustice and moneyed corruption draws on every teen-pic from the juvenile delinquency exposes of the 50s to the self-help ‘bopsicals’ of the 80s.

John Waters, however, has gleefully pounced on the formulas’ hackneyed conventions for his own purposes: this is both a send-up of and homage to the teen-pic and film. It is also about as near to ‘family entertainment’ as the director has ever come: it is kitsch but never decadent, its characters’ rebelliousness is directed towards a socially redeeming end and, apart from a brief zit-squeezing sequence, it does not dabble in the baser bodily functions.

But while Pink Flamingos’ crass shock tactics went for nought in the cult-saturated 70s, Hairspray might almost be seen as genuinely subversive in that its optimistic tone, flirtation with the issues of civil rights, and refusal to subscribe to the ‘less means more’ philosophy, add up to what, these days, is a supremely unfashionable attitude. And if Waters has mellowed towards the mainstream, his deliberate bad taste in the aesthetic arena now provides a refreshing antidote to the ‘designer’ trends of 80s cinema, in which every apartment resembles an ad man’s dream and every two-bit thug wears an Armani suit. If all this is the cinematic equivalent of Nouvelle Cuisine, then Waters’ vision, if it can be called that, is unashamedly junk food. And like junk food, it can be quite tasty while it lasts.

From the opening credit sequence, during which enough aerosol is discharged to destroy a dozen ozone layers, to its all-dancing finale, in which Tracy teaches everyone to dance “The Bug”, this is neither nostalgia nor painstaking period reconstruction, but rather a celebration of cultural fetishism: the artefacts of the 60s exaggerated to almost surreal proportions.

Hair-dos, costume, decor and dance steps are depicted in loving detail. The trash aesthetic embraces an eclectic mix of personalities operating in varying degrees of ham: Waters sets actors from his stock company (Divine, Mink Stole) against familiar pop-star faces (Debbie Harry, Ric Ocasek) and freshly minted cult objects (Pia Zadora).

The dialogue, while no more absurd than that of the straight bopsical, is firmly tongue-in-cheek, ranging from earnest concerns such as “Exactly how many sweaters do you have?” and “Can you relate to Lesley Gore’s music?” to deadpan clichés such as “Our souls are black even if our skin is white” and (from Penny and Seaweed) “Our love is taboo”.

There are even references to the changing times-seemingly a necessary component of any contemporary movie set during the 60s. Tracy, in a political fashion statement, swaps her beehive for a straight-haired beatnik style, while the integration of The Corny Collins Show heralds a new era of racial harmony (in fairy-tale terms, anyway).

The truly radical sub-text, however, is that a heroine can be politically motivated, a good dancer, attractive to the opposite sex, and fat all at the same time. The irrepressible Ricki Lake (“I’m big, blonde and beautiful”) comes on like a teenage Divine, unrepentantly stuffing chocolates into her mouth as she struts before the TV cameras to show off the outsize fashions provided by her sponsor: the Hefty Hideaway dress shop.

 ► Hairspray is rereleased in select UK cinemas on 9 June.