This probably won’t endear me to a certain segment of the blog’s readership but I don’t really dig the musical version of Hairspray and am kind of baffled that it’s developed an enthusiastic cult following that seems to have eclipsed the one for John Waters’ superior 1988 original. My opinion has always been: They got it right the first time, so why was a remake necessary exactly?
I got on the Waters train back in college when I rented Serial Mom on VHS and pretty much became an instant fan. I admit to being partial to his late period work. I respect his extreme gross-out, x-rated, underground movies from the 1970′s, like Pink Flamingos but honestly find them kind of hard to get through and they lose a lot of their rewatchability once the shock value is taken out of them. I know some hardcore Waters fanboys feel like he went “soft” starting with Hairspray but fuck them. I think that’s the point where he really started to find his groove as a director.
Waters isn’t a perfect director but I think one of the great virtues of his work, especially in his later films, is his ability to make intentionally campy movies that play it relatively straight and don’t wink at the audience. I think that’s one of the things that bugged me about the remake. It seemed to be constantly elbowing the audience in the ribs and saying “Geez, this is pretty silly, isn’t it?”. There’s a big difference between casting drag queen Divine as one of the main female characters in your movie and casting John Travolta in a fat suit for the same role.
The 1988 Hairspray also has the virtue of being an honest 60′s nostalgia piece made by people who actually lived through it. The remake, for better or worse, is a 60′s nostalgia piece refracted through a prism of 80′s nostalgia and made by people who either weren’t there or weren’t old enough to know what was going on in 1963. The original Hairspray is campy and silly but the filmmakers connection to the time period gives it a bit of emotional weight that the remake lacks.
Also, as a longtime cult movie fan I’m smart enough to know that a campy midnight movie starring Divine, Ricki Lake, Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, Jerry Stiller, Ruth Brown and that girl who went on to become the lead singer for Eve’s Plumb and Vitamin C is going to trump a cult movie starring John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfieffer, Amanda Bynes and Cyclops from the X-Men*. It’s science fact, people.
And of course as a “chubby American” I have to dig a movie where the fat girl gets the cute guy and instead of treating it like a huge deal the movie just treats it like “Well, duh! Of course she does, she’s awesome.”. Say it loud, brother. We’re fat and proud. I wish real life were more like that but if real life was perfect I guess we wouldn’t really have any need for movies, would we?
*Remember a few years back when the entertainment media was saying James Marsden was all set to become a huge breakout star and we were all going to be worshipping him as a god soon? How’s that working out for you now, James?