I Am Divine

Recommended

2012 | Rated NR

One of the many revelatory elements of I Am Divine—the new documentary about the legendary drag-queen performance artist—is the careful parsing of credit in Divine's creation. Makeup artist Van Smith is the one who shaved back Divine's hairline, creating a vast expanse for explosively dramatic eyebrow situations. Filmmaker John Waters is the one who urged his friend Glenn Milstead to channel his anger—over daily beatings in high school, over being a fat queer kid rotting in Baltimore—into the character of Divine. But beyond this, it was all Divine creating Divine, a fearless gender warrior who means as much to the history of punk as the history of drag, and one of America's great movie stars. Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, I Am Divine covers all its biopic bases well. Kicking off with the premiere of Hairspray—Divine and John Waters's 1988 mainstream breakthrough—the film tracks back to Milstead's privileged but lonely childhood in Baltimore, carries us through the birth and reign of Divine, and gathers voluminous evidence of Divine's star power to make his premature death land as it should. ("I still can't believe he's dead," says Waters, with love and light bafflement.) Beyond the basics, Schwarz shines plenty of light into less-investigated corners of the story: Divine's love life (robust!), pot habit (robust!), and career beyond the John Waters universe (from off-Broadway plays to international disco hits). Bookending the film are stories from Divine's high-drama family saga, which I won't spoil for you here, but which will muss much mascara among audiences. (Bring a tissue.) But the most powerful moments of I Am Divine are the most powerful moments of Divine on film, racing on the insane chemistry she enjoyed with John Waters. In his early works—Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble—Divine attacked the world like no one before, coming on like a one-man Never Mind the Bollocks a half-decade before the invention of the Sex Pistols. Go, cheer, cry, gape in awe. (DAVID SCHMADER)
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Film Credits
Director
Jeffrey Schwarz
Cast