After a seven year break from filmmaking following the 1981 release of Polyester, Baltimore's John Waters returned to directing films and made what would be his first shot at 'the mainstream.' This picture, 1988's Hairspray, would also be the last film he'd make for New Line for a decade. The film would also be a historic moment in his career as it would make the first time one of his films would be shown with a PG rating. While this film has Waters' stamp all over it, gone is the intentionally offensive and challenging humor of his earlier pictures but even with that large part of his ‘tone' neutered, the film still works incredibly well. Call it a maturity on the part of the director if you want, but even more than twenty years since it hit theaters, this one remains a whole lot of good hearted fun.
The movie is in the early 1960s and follows the exploits of a teenage girl named Tracey Turnblad (Riki Lake). She's a slightly overweight girl who lives at home with her parents, Wilber and Edna (Jerry Stiller and Divine), where she dreams of one thing and one thing only: appearing on The Corny Collins Show, hosted by, yep, Corny Collins (Shawn Thompson). This is sort of local version of American Bandstand, and she'd love to make it on there where she'd dance on television for all the world to see. Her best friend, Penny (Leslie Anne Powers), comes from a racist family that doesn't like blacks, and this leads to some trouble for Tracy and Penny when her mother finds her dancing with a few of the local black boys. This doesn't stop Penny for falling for a black boy named Seaweed (Clayton Prince), however.
Eventually Tracy gets a shot at trying out for the show but she's up against Amber Van Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick) who is just as good on her feet and not as thick in the waist. Her parents, Franklin and Velma (Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry), are also willing to help their daughter with whatever means may be necessary. When Tracy finds out that she can make a difference by protesting the segregation that The Corny Collins Show enforces, things get complicated.
While Hairspray, as mentioned, sees Waters playing a in PG rated sandbox, his stamp is still all over the picture. Divine is back in this one with a dual role, and it'd be the last time she'd work with Waters as later that year she died in her sleep. The films introduced Ricki Lake to the world and (say what you will about her talk show or some of her later appearances) she's great in the lead, putting a whole lot of infectious charisma into her role. When you figure that the basic plot of the movie is that an overweight girl wants to get out there and dance for the world, it takes a certain amount of confidence, screen presence and just plain likability to sell it, but that's exactly what Lake does and she's completely charming and adorable here.
While the shock value of Waters' early movies is almost completely gone from this (more or less) family friendly film, his wit and knowing winks to the audience are still there and the humor remains clever and amusing. He does deal with racial issues throughout the movie in interesting ways and there's one slightly gross moment where skin care treatments are involved but it's nothing compared to what he'd depict in movies like Pink Flamingos. However that wit, that sense of the bizarre and the weird, it's still here and it's still a very important part of what makes this movie work as well as it does. His love of oddball pop culture and music also plays a huge part in the look and the sound of the film, particularly in regards to the costumes and the soundtrack put together for the film.
Considerably more polished than anything that Waters had done up to this point in his career, Hairspray, interestingly enough, remains his most successful film. While some of us started to miss his earlier work as he softened up for a while (he definitely made a return to raunchy form with the NC-17 rated A Dirty Shame), there's no denying that this is a well-made film with a big heart and a true sense of fun. The movie is filled with some fantastic performances from Divine and Lake, both of whom are a joy to watch. Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry and Jerry Stiller are all great in their respective supporting roles, along with Mink Stole. We even get some fun cameos from the director himself as well as Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora as a pair of groovy beatniks that try to convince Tracy to do something about her uncool hair!
Hairspray arrives on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.78.1 widescreen and it looks very nice indeed. There's a natural amount of film grain present throughout the picture, it hasn't been scrubbed away in a flurry or noise reduction or anything, but there isn't really much in the way of actual print damage to note at all. The film's bright and sometimes garish color scheme is replicated pretty much perfectly here, the costumes really pop at times, while skin tones look lifelike and natural. Detail is noticeably improved over the DVD release not just in close up shots, where you'll notice the pores on the faces of different characters as well as lines where the makeup starts and stops, but in medium and long distance shots too. The make out session that takes place in the back alley? You can note some of the dirt and grim on the walls and pick out detail on the litter scattered on the ground that would have been tough to make out before. There are no compression issues of note and there are no problems with edge enhancement, ringing or aliasing. There is a bit of noise present in a few shots but outside of that, all in all, this is a really nice transfer.
The main audio option on this disc is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix, but there are alternate language options provided in Castilian Spanish, Latin Spanish, German and Italian in Dolby Digital Mono. Subtitles are offered in English SDH, French, German, Italian and both Castilian and Latin Spanish. The lossless mix on the disc is still a front heavy mix but it does open up the rear channels often, particularly when the music kicks in. Levels are nicely balanced throughout and dialogue stays crisp, clean, clear and easy to follow. There are some directional effects that shift from the front to the sides and to the rears rather effectively while the music, a very important part of this particular film, sounds very good and demonstrates considerably more depth than it had on DVD.
The packaging for this release lists only some vintage interviews as extras but that's doing the disc a disservice. The extras on the disc actually start off with a commentary with John Waters but here he's joined by Ricki Lake (again though, they were recorded individually, not together, which is a shame). Waters has got some great stories about Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry (who offered to service Bono to get him to appear in the film!), and he explains the importance of one's hair in American society. Waters doesn't hold back and Lake is just as brash with some of her comments, going into a fair bit of detail about her first feature film role and what it was like to work with the eccentric director and with Divine.
From there we move on to a nice selection of featurettes starting with the six minute Behind The Scenes: Get To Know… segment which is basically a quick interview done for a local Baltimore TV station in 1987 in which Waters talks to a news reporter named Denise Koch about this project. The four minute Behind The Scenes: Vincent Peranio Hairspray's Production Design segment interviews Peranio about the pre-production design work that he did for the feature which were later turned into the main sets for the film, while the four minute Behind The Scenes: Rachel Talalay Producing Hairspray piece let's New Line producer Talalay talk about her relationship with Waters and what it was like working with him on the first film he'd make for a major studio. The aptly titled Behind The Scenes: Original Hairspray Featurette is a seven minute promotional bit that features interviews with Waters and most of the principal cast members involved in the film: Debbie Harry, Ricki Lake, Jerry Stiller, Sonny Bono and Ruth Brown and of course, Divine. It's interesting enough to watch once and it's great to see some of those who are no longer with us represented here. The two and a half minute Behind The Scenes: Two Of The Original Buddy Deaners Linda And Gene Snyder piece explains how the Corny Collins Show featured in the movie was inspired by an actual dance show called The Buddy Deane Show which was shown on TV in the sixties in Baltimore. The Snyder's were dancers on that show and they share some memories from the time they spent there.
Another ‘tribute to the fallen' piece is included in the form of Behind The Scenes: Dennis Dermody, Sue Lowe And Brook Yeaton, Divine In Memoriam, an eight and a half minute segment that details the passing of Divine only a few shorts weeks after the feature was released. Here the three interviewees, who all knew Divine in real life, share some fun stories about their respective relationships with Waters' muse. We also get the thirteen minute Behind The Scenes: Sue Lowe, Peter Koper And Dennis Dermody A Portrait Of Cookie Mueller tribute to the late Mueller, an actress who appeared in pretty much all of the early underground/indie films and who was quite friendly with him until she passed. Like the Divine piece, this allows those who knew her and were close to her to share some memories and interesting stories about her life. The disc also include a two minute piece called Behind The Scenes: Bob Adams On The Dreamlanders Close Circle Of Friends, a quick bit in which Adams talks about the close knit group of people Waters kept around him and worked with on his early films and how that evolved throughout his career. Behind The Scenes: Dennis Dermody Seasons Greetings, Love John is a three minute piece where Dermody shows off the personalized Christmas cards Waters has sent him over the years, while the four minute Behind The Scenes: Rikki Lake A Hairspray Reunion is a four minute segment from 1994 in which Lake, on her then current talk show, reunites with Waters, Stiller, Brown and (via telephone) St. Gerard for, as the title implies, a quick look back at their experiences working on the picture together.
The disc also includes some interesting audio clips that were taken from some recordings made between Waters and Divine. There are eight clips here, with a combined running time of about seventeen minutes, and they play out as follows: Elton John, Grass And Murder, LSD, Punks, Foreign Travel, Strengths, On Being Divine and last but not least, Showbiz. These are interesting in that they feel fairly intimate, like two old friends chatting about various topics. They don't really relate specifically to Hairspray but that doesn't matter, fans should appreciate their inclusion. Outside of that we also get the film's original theatrical trailer, some animated menus and chapter selection.
Hairspray holds up well and Warner/New Line have done an excellent job on this Blu-ray release. The movie remains funny, touching and even charming, making great use of a fantastic cast and an infectious soundtrack without losing Waters' touch and the disc looks great, sounds great and contains a load of supplemental material. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.