Hairspray (1988)

Film review: Hairspray (1988), written and directed by John Waters

It’s 1962, and the Corny Collins Show is the most popular thing ever. The show is presented by Corny Collins (Shawn Thompson), and features a number of dancers, such as Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) and Link Larkin (Michael St Gerard).

It’s chubby teenager Tracy Turnblad’s (Ricki Lake) highest ambition in life to dance on this show. As luck would have it, she makes it and becomes a big hit with the audience. Amber’s mother (Debbie Harry of Blondie fame) is less impressed. Who does that girl think she is, to outshine her own pretty little girl?

Tracy has the time of her life, but she becomes aware of the injustices of the show – for instance, black kids are only allowed on the show on certain days, when it’s “blacks only”. Idealistic Tracy soon gets dragged into not just a dacing competition, but also in the civil rights movement of the time.

With a soundtrack featuring the greats of the era, such as Chubby Checker and Gene Pitney, Hairspray is really not the sort of film I thought it would be.

Also starring Sonny Bono  as Franklin von Tussle, Ruth Brown as Motormouth Maybelle, Divine as Edna Turnblad and Arvin Hodgepile, Jerry Stiller as Wilbur Turnblad, Leslie Ann Powers as Penny Pingleton, Clayton Prince as Seaweed and Mink Stole as Tammy.

First off, I loved the soundtrack, because I love oldies songs, so that’s a plus point right there! Second, while Tracy (and her mother) are overweight, this was never made into an issue. They might be fat, but they’re fabulous, and there’s no real stigma attached to their weights. This was also a positive, and an unexpected one at that.

Third, I never expected this kind of cheerful musical film to make a strong statement regarding racism and equal rights. A white girl falls in love with a black boy, despite parental disapproval, and Tracy actually gets thrown into jail because she very nearly causes a riot trying to gain publicity for her friends’ struggle.

The beauty of this film, while it’s lighthearted and whimsical, is that it still deals with big, important subjects, and yes, that the heroine of the piece isn’t a stick insect might raise a few eyebrows to begin with, it doesn’t ever get singled out as being an actual problem standing in the way of anyone’s happiness. So many things make this film memorable, even though Ricki Lake today is probably more known for her TV talk show.

In view of the non-issue of weight, the fantastic music and the equal rights statement, this film is all kinds of right, and I really enjoyed it. If you take everything I’ve said so far as a set-up for what I thought of the 2007 version (check back later in the week), you’d be correct. The 1988 version of Hairspray is fabulous, and I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.

4 out of 5 TV cameras.

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