Hairspray, easily the most instantly palatable of all John Waters' films, was never a given. Transformers? That was a given. Pirates of the Caribbean sequels? A given. But, ever since the shenanigans John Waters managed to pull off with Pink Flamingos, it's always seemed like a miracle that anyone ever considered investing in one of his pictures again.
13 feature films into his career, and Waters had grown from punk provocateur to an elder statesman of high-minded trash. While films like Pink Flamingos and Polyester caught the attention of midnight movie fans, Hairspray was Waters' first breakthrough hit. With Hairspray, Waters was able to fuse his anarchic aesthetic with social commentary and enough pop sensibility to appeal to the masses.
So, why does it work?
Bait and Switch
Hairspray pulls a nice little trick throughout the first half of the film. At the start, the plot seems simple enough: Overweight Tracy Turnblad gets a spot on The Corny Collins Show, a teen dance program featuring wonder-bread teens bopping about to hit records. Tracy becomes a surprise sensation and all the pieces are in place for an I'm-OK-You're-OK comedy of the "stand up and cheer, feel good movie of the year" variety.
However, Tracy and her BFF Penny Pingleton soon befriend members of the black community, a friendship that gets them the inside scoop on new dances before they reach the white community. Tracy (having more fun dancing than ever) and Penny (in love with Seaweed, the best dancer of all the black kids) quickly turn their attentions from dancing to making The Corny Collins show fully integrated.
This is the brilliance of John Waters—he eases audiences into his films with silliness and then drops in issues of actual importance without ever losing sight of the silliness. Waters even enters the fray himself as a hypo-therapist charged with curing Penny Pingleton of her affections for Seaweed.
Place of Wisdom
Whether you approach Hairspray from the micro (Tracy Turnblad's story) or the macro (segregation/integration), the film is fundamentally about accepting the outliers of society for who they are, without asking them to be anything else. One of the reasons so many of these I'm-OK-You're-OK stories feel so false is because the cast actually is OK to begin with (or much much better than OK). Watching Sandra Bullock or Rachael Leigh Cook find and share their inner-beauty really doesn't mean squat.
John Waters, a fringe individual to say the least, populates his films with people who actually do have to struggle to find the base levels of acceptance that people way less stunning than Sandra Bullock receive on a daily basis. His love for actual underdogs isn't just a spice that he tosses on top of the stories he tells—it's the base ingredient. It's the source of all the drama and the crux of all the comedy.
While there are limitless ways to classify comedy, the most useful I've found is that it's either inside or outside comedy. Inside comedy is when the person making the joke is nudging your elbow, saying, "See that thing over there? Isn't that ridiculous? It's a good thing that you and I are over here where things are normal." Outside comedy is a lot messier. It's usually predicated on the aching feeling that it's impossible to get a bead on what is ridiculous and what isn't.
John Waters is a master of outside comedy. By coating all of his outsider sensibilities in a pop aesthetic, Waters manages to bring the outside to the inside. His unabashed love for the underdog isn't just what makes his films great, it's what makes them possible.
More often than not, these I'm-OK-You're-OK stories end with a tinge of hypocrisy. The stories about the outcast almost invariably feature a team of villains who are rich and popular. These snobs seem to exist with a bafflingly specific set of traits; traits that look absurd when illustrated thusly:
So, the spoiled rich kids are the center of attention and the outcast is watching from afar. The outcast has a talent that manifests over the course of the film, first privately and then, with much reluctance from the outcast, publicly. Once it manifests publicly, the outcast receives the adulation of the community and is validated by receiving what the villain wanted (and had) the whole time.
Boom. Hypocrisy. Try to imagine any other genre where the hero is rewarded with the villain's vice. Frodo doesn't get to keep The One Ring, John McClane doesn't get to keep the bearer bonds and Indiana Jones doesn't get to keep The Ark of the Covenant. Because they're not hypocrites, they don't actually want the things the villains have been working towards. They want something greater.
Nine times out of ten, these I'm-OK-You're-OK stories end with the hero achieving the villains' goals. The only thing that makes them not a villain is that they weren't the center of attention at the beginning of the story.
While Hairspray does feature this type of simplified villain in rival dancer Amber Von Tussle, Tracy actually wants something greater than the crown and throne at the Miss Auto Show 1963 pageant. (Amber can think of no higher honor.)
She wants equality for her friends and, having achieved that, she wants to dance. That she wants to dance is nothing special, considering the genre. How she wants to dance is what is important.
Until the climax, all the featured dances are group routines, usually line dances and with some records even calling out instructions as the dance happens. It's never commented on until Tracy, having won the title of Miss Auto Show 1963 is told she can choose the celebratory dance.
The dance she chooses is one called The Bug, a freeform dance where you shimmy and shake like an insect is crawling around inside your clothing. Once you manage to find the imaginary bug, you toss it onto someone else and they do their version of the dance. The final dance doesn't feature everyone grooving with Tracy in some blow-out choreographed sequence. It shows everyone finding a way to be themselves as permission to do so is passed from one person to the next.
There's no applause for Tracy or for Seaweed having reached their goals. The cheering is for the community of people who are enjoying life together, which is what I'm-OK-You're-OK movies profess to be about, but rarely are.
Tilted Acres was filmed at Dorney Park. I worked at Dorney Park and it was awesome.
What Doesn't Work
John Waters is a tricky fellow. His filmmaking is so slapdash and freewheeling, that the rough edges aren't a problem; they feel like an integral part of the aesthetic. Some performances go bafflingly large. Some barely register. Some of the gags land and some of them just dangle. None of that matters because there is so much forward momentum.
As long as the movie is happening, you are a guest in Waters' world and there's no reason to complain. Not that complaining would change anything. He steers the cinema train however he likes.
Hairspray is available on Amazon. So, do that click thing if you want.