George Lucas is credited with kicking off the 50’s nostalgia movement with his American Graffiti. It was a vision of the last days of a golden era. Pristine, gorgeous cars, cruising round and round city centers packed with teens. Even if this was a setup for the gut-punch end title cards, in American Graffiti the good times were truly good.
Hairspray arrived late to the party, four years after the American Graffiti derivative “Happy Days” mercifully ended, and when the nostalgia circuit was becoming a bit more cynical and jaundiced. Hairspray may smile just as wide as other films, but John Waters was behind the camera.
Waters was unique among directors. He loves the ugliness of human artifice thoroughly and completely. His movies are populated with detritus from junk culture. He loves the awful clothes, the blight, the odors, the weirdo kids toys. Other directors, namely Wes Anderson and Tim Burton often share this love of the abandoned, however Water’s is unique amongst even this lot. He doesn’t invest these items with any beauty or any noble function. They’re disgusting, the audience is supposed to be grossed out by them, and sorrowful to belong to a society that would ever market them.
Hairspray conceives of a world where such ugliness functions in society. It’s a rejoinder to that perfect world of American Graffiti and the invincible privilege at the heart of Animal House, and together fills out a broader picture of its era. Some kids cruised in brand new cars, many more relied on creaky busses. Some markets had the best rock and roll beamed to them 24 hours a day, others had to rely on thirty minute TV shows for a brief, glimpse into that world populated by local knock-offs. Some girls could inspire mad devotion at a glance and others relied on specialty shops to find dresses that fit.
Ostensibly the film concerns a portly girl who can’t be denied: Tracy Turnblatt first wins a role on the local dance show and goes on to fight for racial integration on TV and beyond. But the period coincides with the great white flight from major metropolitan areas. Three white families are highlighted here, the Turnblatts, the Piggletons, and the Von Tussles. Of them only the Turnblatts soften their position on race by the end of the film, even then because their daughter directly confronts them with the issue. You can extend this to Baltimore proper and see how the city became majority black by the time of Hairspray’s release.
If Prudence Piggleton’s frantic rescue attempt of her daughter from the clutches of the docile blacks in the record store corresponds to actual attitudes of the day, Hairspray paints a much bleaker of the true state of race relations than any of the other nostalgia films. There’s a whole intractable generation that won’t reconcile and won’t accept social change.
In the end the gains made by Tracy Turnblatt feel extremely pyrrhic. If she integrates one dance show, another would spring up that would achieve segregation through different means. Integrate one amusement park, and families would flock to another.
Outside of the racial undertones, Hairspray must also be credited with giving cinema one of the great villains. In any other film Amber von Tussle would’ve been the star. Here she’s a creature of bottomless cruelty. Once scorned she turns into a gossip factory, slandering Tracy with every manner of slight to whomever’s in earshot.
The cast is rounded out by a number of musicians--including Waters stalwart Divine, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Sonny Bono, the great Ruth Brown, Pia Zadorra, the Car’s Ric Ocasek--although none of them actually perform for the film. Colleen Fitzpatrick would go onto a career in music under the stage name “Vitamin C”.