The recent movie-musical version of Hairspray just came out on DVD, and it inspired me to screen both versions back to back. There is something interesting about Hairspray. Even though the story is set in 1962 or ’63, with all the cultural upheaval of the era, each film actually seems to give more of a pulse of the time in which it was made.
I have a great fondness for the original John Waters Hairspray. Or maybe it is just hard to forget Divine, the 300-pound drag queen, filling the screen in a housecoat. Or the fact that the Waters sensibility — sans dog poo or Egg Lady, but still bent — was selling out the multiplex. And, though the new Hairspray has wonderfully exuberant dance numbers and a plot faithful to the original’s social commentary on prejudice, I can’t help but feel like a radical element from the 1988 version is dampened — has been Waters-ed down, you might say.
1988 was the lumbering end of the Reagan administration and the social exhaustion left in its wake. I would suggest he is the least citizen-friendly president we’ve had, but then I remember that guy taking up space in the Oval Office right now. Oops.
The first Hairspray wasn’t politically controversial because it addressed race relations. The true pie-in-the-face to Reagantipathy was that it was successful at all, and all over the country. There was Divine, in all his huge, trashy, transvestite glory, portraying an American housewife. And it was seen by audiences far from West Hollywood and Greenwich Village, and apparently far from the separatist mindset of the president-formerly-known-as-actor. The 1988 Hairspray was unabashed and unapologetic in its celebration of the overweight and the underdog. It was an imperfectly acted hodgepodge in the time of Nancy Reagan’s airbrushed couture, a sloppy hulk of a gay guy parading around in a dress when homosexuals had to be on their best behavior.
The new Hairspray doesn’t impact in any of the same ways Divine & Co. did, but it does reveal something about its own time. There is an interesting nuance to this new film: While all the dance numbers are peppy and buoyant, there is a particular crackle that happens in the sequences where the interplay is between the characters in the TV studio and those watching (or dancing) along at home. It is hard to define exactly why these numbers ratchet up the electricity, except to suggest that director-choreographer Adam Shankman — whether intentionally or otherwise — has tapped into the state of our current media frenzy.
I watched an Oprah show the other day about big weight-loss stories. One woman said the turning point came for her over the Internet. She had spent her entire adult life, at 600 pounds plus, secluded in her apartment, unwilling to face the disparagement of people on the street. But someone gave her a computer, and she developed chat relationships with people who had no idea of her physical description, forming bonds with them. The strength of these connections — and their impact on her own sense of self — was the motivation she needed to turn her life around. It is hard to know how to interpret that, except to say it is probably the bright side of a symbiosis that no doubt also has a very dark aspect. I hear parents complaining their teens have more predominant relationships on MySpace than in real life.
Look, I am the last broadband junkie to say, “Media bad!” But I do notice a glassy-eyed complacency that comes over a certain segment these days. And since we are still dealing with a citizen-unfriendly tool in the White House, I think it is a good idea to get up from the screen periodically and get some fresh air, just like your mother always said — even if she was a 300-pound transvestite.