The original Hairspray is the first John Waters movie I ever shared with friends—they were absolutely flabbergasted. (“I can’t believe movies like this exist!”) At the time, we were high school students, which is really the perfect time to discover the movie thanks to its coming-of-age, we’re-gonna-change-the-world vibe.
Paid for by Committee to Reelect Judge North, P.O. Box 27113, Seattle, WA 98165
Now, two decades and a receding hairline later, I’m delighted to have an opportunity to introduce even more weirdos to the movie, thanks to MoPOP & their virtual “Grow Up!” screening series of films about being a teen. Join us this Friday night for a virtual simul-screening (which means you obtain your own copy of the film, and then we all watch together with a chat window open), along with a Q&A livestream afterward where we can talk about why it’s one of my favorite watch-along-with-friends films ever made.
Hairspray and Serial Mom are both perfect film-watcher litmus tests, in that you can tell everything you need to know about a person by how they respond. (Watching Serial Mom with a film academic a few years ago, I got his whole vibe when he remarked, “Well, I have no idea where we are in the act structure right now.”)
But Hairspray manages the amazing magic trick of being timeless while also being extremely specific about the time it’s set: 1962, in the cultural rock-tumbler that moved the country from the formal (racist) ‘50s to the revolutionary (and still racist, but in a different way) ‘60s. While capturing what is clearly a genuine love of the time and place, John Waters also slips in a cutting take on American segregation and overall cruelty, from the perspective of someone who was always an outsider but managed to steal the keys to the castle with a big-budget film.
This film, and the musical remake, have a few creaky wrinkles when watched from the perspective of a summer full of Black Lives Matter activism. Every movie needs an ending, of course, but something feels a bit … off … about a story that seems to conclude with racism “solved” by a song and dance and a handful of racists put in their place.
The musical adds a song entitled “Come So Far (Got So Far to Go),” and to be honest it’s wearying to hear those words sung about a story set in the '60s, crafted in the '80s, updated in the 2000s, and turned into a live broadcast just a few years ago. It’s like every 20 years we check in to say, “Hey, is society fixed yet? No? Okay we’ll keep trying!”
But hey, what else is a coming-of-age film for if not starry optimism? When I watched with my high school friends so many years ago, we all identified with the intensity of Tracy Turnblad’s demand for justice. The teenage years are when a person learns a lot about the kind of human they’re going to be, while still accepting inputs that shape the adult life they’ll assume. And as inputs go, Hairspray’s a good spark to have in the mix.