A pivotal film in the director’s output, John Water’s 1988 "Hairspray" marks his entry into the world of mainstream cinema. It was a creative evolution that began a decade earlier with "Polyester," which exposes the sordid horrors in the personal lives of a seemingly average suburban family.
Also set in middle-class Baltimore, the significantly sanitized "Hairspray" is a colorful scrapbook of the 1960s, its wayward hairdos, and trendy dances. The humor consists of satirical barbs at the absurd conventions of the period, and the script is packed with ’60s in-jokes and popular expressions, all designed to appeal to a broad, general public. Older viewers would find it nostalgic; younger audiences, campy and silly.
However, many gay men who reveled in the delectable filth of films like "Pink Flamingos," "Desperate Living," or Waters’ masterpiece "Female Trouble," considered "Hairspray" a sellout to a heterosexual audience, and to the lure of profit. The divine Divine, once the filthiest person alive, was reduced to a bland housewife. Edith Massey was gone, and wonderful villainess Mink Stole was cast in a minor supporting role, and a sympathetic one at that!
To insure the film’s success, it was loaded with catchy R&B songs and elaborate dance routines. The socially-relevant theme of racial segregation was even tossed into the mix. The formula proved successful. The popularity of the innocuous, tuneful film qualified it as a strong candidate for a Broadway musical; in 2007, the musical itself became another film of the same name.
Despite its tamer style, "Hairspray" manages to display an occasional edge, and does not fail to amuse or entertain. Divine is hilarious, making the most of her role as gargantuan housewife, Edna. Funnyman Jerry Stiller gets into the spirit of things as Divine’s husband. Ricki Lake is ideal as their daughter Tracy, teenage chubette who unwittingly becomes a cause celebre for the civil rights movement. As driven stage mother Velma, Debbie Harry, sporting a monumental hair-do, nearly steals the show. The cultish supporting cast includes singers Sonny Bono, and the Queen of R&B, Ruth Brown.
This week, the original "Hairspray!" is undergoing another step in its evolutionary process -- a new release on Blu-ray. Though the film was issued on a fine DVD version a dozen years back, Warner Brothers is giving the cult classic the full high-def treatment. Waters’ films are hardly recognized for their high production values, but the "Hairspray" Blu-ray presents a strong case. The picture quality is the best ever, displaying a clarity and sharpness clearly superior to that of the DVD issue. The vibrant colors really dazzle; and the 5.1 Dolby digital soundtrack nicely showcases the endless string of songs.
The disc includes a plethora of special features including audio commentary by Waters and Ricki Lake. There are several short features on the making of the film, interviews with friends and co-workers of Waters and Divine, the original theatrical trailer, and a number of interesting audio excerpts of Divine discussing her career. Currently selling for around $10, the successful new "Hairspray" Blu-ray is a must-own for fans of John Waters.