The fall of 1992 I was a senior in high school and the single "Free Your Mind" by En Vogue came out and I did just that! Growing up in a small southern town does not lend it's self to the freeing of one's mind easily, but you can make it happen if you try. I realized that there was something wrong and it was not with me. . It all seemed to weigh me down. Cruelty as normalcy. Hell to the no. I wasn't having it anymore.
This wasn't a sudden thing for me. The groundwork had been laid earlier. Back when Janet Jackson's epic album "Rhythm Nation 1814" had slapped me in the face with world issues and made me realize that life is hard. Why make it harder for people by being a jerk. The the slab of my rebirth was a film from 1988. A film that got me through the worst part of my life. the worst up to that point and to this day, the worst. The survival of the fittest is the name of the game. Hell truly is for children. I dare even speak it's name. But I must. Jr. High School. And my savior from all that was unholy about lonely lunches and unsent party invitations was HAIRSPRAY. What I learned from HAIRSPRAY was so much greater than anything the teachers at my school had taught me.
I grew up in a John Waters free household. I had no clue that he was this master filmmaker with a huge cult following. But once I saw the trailer to HAIRPSRAY, I knew what life would have in store for me. Naturally it didn't make it to the big screen at Picayune Cinema Four so I had to wait until it came out in VHS. Tuesday I was there and it was the day everything changed. On the first viewing of HAIRSPRAY, it truly is shocking to the senses. Everything that is wonderful about life can be found in this film. The joy level is so high that once it is reached to its fullest capacity you can actually feel your feet dangling in mid-air. When the credits roll there is nothing that can stop you from immediately rewinding it and watching it all over again. Well, besides a bedtime.
Everyday heroes are called that because they are in our everyday lives. Ricki Lake, as Tracy Turnblad, is an everyday hero. I might not see her walking down the streets of Seattle or talk to her on the phone, but she is in my soul. Tracy has got to be one of the best realized characters in cinema history. Plump and hot, she sets out to prove that she can do whatever the fuck she wants too and do it better than you! She wants to be on the Corny Connell's Show and she does easily wipes the floor with the competition. But she also immediately steals the spotlight and snatches herself a hunk.
As it always is in life. Chasing your dreams will always have roadblocks. The boss who steals your ideas, but ends up skiing off the side of a mountain and you get to take over her job, but then she comes back and bust you in front of the entire board of directors. Or you accidentally murder the guy who was trying to get you at a trashy bar and end up on the run with your best gal pal and almost make it safely across the Mexican border, but you end up just flying off the side of a cliff. Struggles. We all have them. Tracy Turnblad only has one major roadblock and it comes in the form of one of the coldest and most calculating villains in modern cinema. Amber Von Hussle.
Colleen Fritzpatrick, who would later go on to be pop sensation Vitamin C, steps into the Amber role with such gusto, it is hard to imagine her not to be a horrible person in real life. It's an Oscar worthy performance that goes beyond anything that I think John Waters could have imagined. Every bit of dialogue that comes from her crackles with mean girl intensity. She is hateful, gossipy, a cock tease and a racist. The unlikable is so exaggerated that you can't help but LOVE Colleen for tackling the role and John Waters for creating her. She thinks that she can toss fat jokes at Tracy, but Miss Turnblad's warrior armour is so thick that she not only reads her to filth on the dance floor, but steals her commercial spots on the show. Tracy, one by one, is taking everything that Amber holds near and dear to her and redefining AND making the bitch watch her to it! Amber is going to blow her top by the end of this movie!
Set during the height of the civil rights movement, Tracy was a modern kind of gal. All she wanted was for everyone to have fun, no matter what skin you are in. Either you could do the Madison or you couldn't. And if you couldn't she would show you, since she is the best dancer in the movie. I'm sure there is a professional dancer tossed in here and there. I'm pretty sure a choregropaher worked with the cast, but you could never tell. The kids in the the movie pull of real life dancing like no other film. Well, maybe They Shoot Horses Don't They?, but that is about it. All the movements are awkward and kinda not precise, but that is the beauty of the film. It is like watching your friends dance.
The soundtrack is to curl up and dye for. Seriously, I thought all the songs were made up until my Mother informed me that she had done "The Roach (Dance)". GASP! I almost died. I made her do it for me right there in the kitchen. And you know what? She did it. My sister's and I learned to do the "Madison" along with the movie. I forever feel in love with The Ikettes, Gene Pitney and The Five Du-Tunes. But the song "Nothing Takes The Place of You" by Toussaint McCall is the show stopper. The kids have just been to their first juke joint dance and are making out in the streets. A rat crawls over Tracy foot and she shakes it off, while a hobo walks down the road singing along with the music pouring out of the gymnasium. It will stop you cold. It still can make me cry. Hairspray was my first introduction to true soul music.
Hairspray opened my eyes to the great miss Pia Zadora. "Let's get high and iron the girls hair!" has got to be one of the greatest lines uttered in a movie about the 60's. All she wants to do is listen to Odetta (who I thought was made up at the time) and quote lines from HOWL. Okay, to see Pia read from anything is amazing, but to she her read from that book is wonderful. John Waters gets the joke. The kids don't care and Pia, in true Zadora fashion, shrugs and says, "Why not?" Little did I know at the time how much Pia would become a fabric of my life. The Lonely Lady, Fake-Out, Butterfly and the Great American Song Book VHS are staples of my media diet. How is it that she has always been in my life? That John Waters....I tell ya....
Of course there is diva ole the day, Divine. All I knew about Divine was that she was a he and he died. All I knew was that when I watched it, I never ever questioned Mrs. Turnblad's gender. Whether it was talking politics with Penny's mom or dealing with Mrs. Von Hussle, she was a true woman through and through. It's a pitch perfect performance. Later, I would discover the legacy that was the Waters/Divine combo, but nothing has been able to top the work in Hairspray. It's like some lunatic woman unfortunately became a mother and decided to clean up her act and try to give her daughter the best life possible. Some of us can relate. Thank Deena Jones that we got to see Divine get a role of a lifetime and work it!
Years later, the video store which I worked at through my high school years had TV monitors surrounding the rather large store. The TV would blare cartoons mostly. Safe for everyone. But when the boss left we got to play whatever we wanted. It was always HAIRSPRAY. A few other titles tossed in randomly, but always HAIRSPRAY. We had two copies and I only would rent out one, because the other HAD to stay in the store so I could play it whenever I wanted too. Over and over. I could hear all the voices of all my favorite people talking even if I couldn't see the screen. I memorized the whole movie and at times would start conversations with customers using the lines from the movie to see if they would notice. CRAZY!! I know it now, but at the moment it seemed reasonable. The staff constantly hid it from me, because it was in such heavy rotation. But it somehow always would find it's way back to me.
To this day, I firmly believe that HAIRSPRAY is one of the greatest films ever made. It's a bold claim, but a true one. John Waters was able to get into mainstream culture and do what he does best. Drive everyone insane, but do it with intelligence , a lot of heart and just a touch of dog shit.
Hairspray also has one of the greatest kid sister characters in a movie EVER. Crykle Milbourne AKA L'il Inez is breathtaking. In her only role, Crykle captures the annoyance and grace that comes with having a kid sister. She is always around and usually getting on her nerves, but you can't help but want to teach her everything you know. And L'il Inez can get down with the rest of them. Don't count her out when it comes to dancing! I love you L'il Inez.