Thursday, April 4, 2019

The 1988 Hairspray Feature Is A Groovy Time Full of Brilliantly Unique Humor

I've grown up with the 2007 version of Hairspray, meaning the version of Hairspray I'm so familiar with is full of musical numbers and James Marsden. Having watched that feature countless times over the years, it was fascinating to watch the original Hairspray and see how it compared to the 2007 remake. For the first half of this 1988 take on Hairspray, directed by incomparable icon John Waters, the plot remains similar to the musical remake, it's still the story of Tracy Turnblad (here played by Ricki Lake), a girl living in 1960's Baltimore who loves The Corny Collins Show. She eventually gets a chance to audition for the program and manages to surprise everyone, including her mother Edna (Divine) by actually getting onto the show.

As said before, that's all pretty similar to what transpired in the first half of the 2007 musical take on this same material, but around the midway point, the 1988 Hairspray movie sharply divulges from its remake in terms of storytelling path. Tracy joining her friends Seaweed (Clayton Prince) and Maybelle Stubbs (Ruth Brown) in calling for racial integration on The Corny Collins Show still occurs, but this time around there are a lot more wacky detours along the way, including a radically different third act involving a riot at an amusement park, Maybelle confronting the mayor and a bomb being tucked away in a particularly elaborate hairdo. Both Hairspray movies have overall similar themes and stories, but it's hard to imagine a somber scene like the I Know Where I've Been musical number being able to occur in the wacky landscape of this 1988 feature.

That's not inherently a criticism of the original Hairspray though as more off-the-wall sensibilities turn out to be a fine fit for this material. Going down a more offbeat path allows writer/director John Waters to find a humorous manner in which Hairspray can poke fun at establishment authority figures who make life hell for both people of color and members of the LGBTQA+ community alike. The extremely broad nature of the proceedings allow opposers of racial integration to be painted as buffoons of the highest caliber and one's typically portrayed by members of the very communities their characters would be oppressing. The 1988 take on Hairspray has the inmates running the asylum and they run it with a wickedly fun dark sense of humor.

That dark sense of humor is coupled with a greater recognition of 1960's counter-culture compared to the 2007 remake which includes a humorous sequence depicting Tracy and friends have a run-in with a pair of married beatniks living in a dingy apartment. That sequence is a great example of how Hairspray uses frequently stylized dark humor to recognize actual elements of mid-20th-century reality. Such an approach to this type of humor is also used to depict parts specific to this era that still ring as being relevant today. This is most notably seen in the lengths the overprotective parents of Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) will go to "save" their daughter, which get realized in a humorously exaggerated fashion that soon incorporates Waters in a cameo as a cartoonish stereotype of a hypnotist.

Stylized dark humor is used to recognize the realities of the 1960s in a successful fashion in Hairspray, but the biggest success on the part of this type of humor is that it's just plain fun to watch. This brand of comedy is abundant in the script by John Waters, which keeps this kind of dark humor plentiful by making the world of Tracy Turnblad all the more bonkers as the story goes on. Once we reach a race-against-the-clock climax where Tracy and friends have to stop the Von Tussles family from winning a Miss Auto Show pageant, one truly has no idea where the humorous imagination of John Waters will take us next. Turns out, Waters is taking the viewer to an appropriately bizarre finale that has a bomb explosion go off before having it quickly followed up by an impromptu dance party.

How can you not laugh at a darkly humorous moment like that? This brilliant screenplay also translates its unique style of humor into the dialogue producing all kinds of wonderfully hilarious throughout the screenplay like "Boy, she makes me ashamed to be white!" that performers such as the one-of-a-kind delight Divine deliver in a hysterical fashion. Though the 2007 version of this material is near and dear to my heart, there's also plenty of room in my heart for two great takes on the story of Hairspray and this original version of this material provides plenty of charmingly offbeat personality to help make it stand out on its own terms. Put simply, the 1988 take on Hairspray is so cool and awesome it might as well be The Nicest Kids In Town!

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