Friday, December 9, 2016

You can't stop the beat

Hairspray is my favorite John Waters movie. I don't recall the first time I saw it but I remember loving every thing about it. It was my John Waters gateway movie; after Hairspray, I went back and watched all the earlier films and have been a fan ever since. Released in 1988, Hairspray told the story of Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) a "pleasantly plump" teen in 1962 Baltimore. She dreams of being on a local dance show, The Corny Collins Show, and going steady with the dreamy Link. Her mother, Edna (played by the divine Divine), is basically an agoraphobic who takes in laundry and scolds Tracy for having ratted hair. Running along side this plot is a focus on segregation in the 1960s; the Corny Collins Show show is segregated and Tracy makes it her mission to integrate it. All sorts of famous faces make appearances (Debbie Harry, Pia Zadora, Rik Ocasek, Sonny Bono, Jerry Stiller, and Ruth Brown) and Waters's regulars Mink Stole and Alan J. Wendl round out the cast. Fun fact: Vitamin C plays Amber, Tracy's rival (she's billed under her real name, Colleen Fitzpatrick).

The original film is campy and charming all at the same time. I'm pretty certain that Divine was the first drag performer I consciously recognized as a drag performer. There is something magical about her as Edna; I don't know if it's the Baltimore accent, her sort of soft gruffness, or the fact that she owned every scene she's in (both in and out of drag). There are certain lines that pop into my head in Divine's voice all the time: "Could you turn that racket down? I'm trying to iron in here." or "It's the times. They are a-changin'." Divine is my favorite part of the movie followed closely by Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry as the von Tussles. I believe I learned how to Madison by watching this movie; this is a skill I no longer have and it would never, ever have been useful since I was not alive in 1962.

I was cautiously optimistic when I heard that Hairspray was being made into a Broadway musical. John Waters had given his blessing so I knew it would be safe from what happens when musicals are made from other source materials. And let me tell you, it's a wonderful show. It's fun and joyful and touching and relatable. The music and songs are some of my favorite from more modern musicals; they fit into the show as well as the time period being portrayed. Every now and then, "You Can't Stop the Beat" pops into my head for no reason and refuses to a totally good way. The musical was nominated for 12 Tonys, winning 8 awards.

The musical was eventually turned into another film starring Nikki Blonksy as Tracy and John Travolta as Edna. It's not my favorite of the versions of Hairspray but it features some amazing performances by Blonsky, Queen Latifah as Motormouth Mabel, James Marsden as Corny Collins, and Elijah Kelley as Seaweed. James Marsden is probably my favorite part of the movie; he captures the wholesomeness and inappropriateness needed to play Corny Collins. I hoped at some point during this season of Westworld, Teddy would break into "Nicest Kids in Town" with the rest of the hosts. That would have made my life. My biggest complaint with the film was Travolta; I thought he was terrible. Harvey Fierstein, who played Edna on Broadway, should have been cast. Thankfully, the recent broadcast of Hairspray Live! rectified this situation; all of America (or at least the parts that watch live musicals on NBC) got to see Fierstein slay the role of Edna as Divine and God intended. I watched the broadcast earlier this week; Fierstein was one of the highlights along with an adorably awkward Ariana Grande as Penny, Martin Short, and Jennifer Hudson showing us all what it means to really live in a song.

Hairspray is about a lot of things but at its heart it's about diversity and acceptance. Tracy Turnblad was about body positivity before it was a thing. As Tracy exclaims in the original movie, "Now all of Baltimore will know... I'm big, blonde and beautiful!"(which is an amazing song in the musical). She didn't think being "pleasantly plump" as a problem; it made her unique and who she was. It didn't change the fact that she was a bad ass dancer or stood up for her friends and what was right (integrating the dance show). She got to dance with the cute boy. She wore dresses that made her feel special and pretty. She used her voice when others around her could not.

It's also about the message of inclusion and accepting diversity as part of the fabric of life. The 1960s were a tumultuous time in our history and Baltimore, like other cities, was front and center in the Civil Rights movement. When you first start to watch any of the versions of Hairspray, you think you're just getting a fluffy teen dance show movie/musical but it's really social commentary. Waters's movies always focus on outsiders and Hairspray captures that in a way that I don't think I thought much about when I was younger but now seems even more important. Listen to the song "I Know Where I've Been" - yes, Jennifer Hudson killed it on Wednesday but I love Queen Latifah in the movie so much that I'm using her version instead:

The lyrics resonate as much today as they would have in 1962. I couldn't help but think about recent protests as I watched the live broadcast on Wednesday. The signs might look different (maybe not entirely) but the sentiment is the same. As I wrote back in November, we have a lot of work to do in this country. We can sit by and let hate and fear take over or we can be like Tracy and her friends and stand up for what's right. Or maybe you prefer to dance for what's right; that's cool with me. I'll be over here pretending I remember how to Madison and singing along with "You Can't Stop the Beat."

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