Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz in 2013, I Am Divine is a feature length documentary that examines the life and times of Harris Glenn Milstead, the Baltimore born man who would become one of the most famous drag queens of all time, Divine. The feature starts in the early days where we meet a fairly shy young man unsure of his sexual identity. We learn how he dated the same girl in high school for a few years, worked in a beauty salon and then discovered Baltimore's gay subculture in the mid-sixties. Around the same time, he also started hanging around an aspiring filmmaker named John Waters who gave him the name Divine and started casting him in short films he was making. When Waters' films Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs started to get some attention, Divine became the director's muse and they'd go on to make trash classics like Polyester, Desperate Living and Female Trouble before going for a more mainstream approach with Hairspray.
As Divine's star began to rise, there were other projects: live performances, theater work, a recording career and appearances in non-Waters films like Lust In The Dust where Divine was reunited with Polyester co-star and former teen heart throb Tab Hunter under the watchful eye of director Paul Bartel. Divine's lifestyle, however, was not a particularly healthy one and overeating and weight gain eventually lead to Milstead passing long before his time in 1988 at the age of forty-two from a heart attack shortly before he was to shoot an appearance on the then extremely popular Fox sitcom, Married With Children.
Schwarz's film basically follows this path, Divine's rise and then fall, as Milstead transforms from a mold mannered suburbanite into a seemingly unstoppable force. There are plenty of interviews here with those who knew him with some of the most interesting footage coming from clips shots with his mother, Francis Milstead. She talks about what it was like raising him, how she and his father basically disowned him for a while due to their conservative values and religious beliefs. They're reunite before Divine passed away, but you can tell from the clips here that Divine's lifestyle was not an easy thing for his family to accept. Other interviewees include, of course, John Waters who speaks quite bluntly and with that infectious glean in his eye about the insanity of their early collaborations. Waters is always an entertaining interviewee and a man known not to mix words, as is the case here. He's very open about the gay lifestyle they were a part of in their early days and how that affected their projects and of course he discusses the infamous dog turd scene from Pink Flamingos.
As the movie plays out we also hear from the man who created Divine's now instantly recognizable look, with the head shaved halfway back to make room for more eye makeup! Riki Lake also appears here and talks about making Hairspray with Divine, and other co-stars like Mink Stole and Tab Hunter also chime in with some amusing memories. There are lots of archival interview clips with Divine used throughout and a great archival piece with Edith Massey, best known as the ‘egg lady', included for good measure. It's a pretty thorough piece in that it really does round up a host of people who knew Divine, from filmmakers to fellow drag performers to those who were involved in Divine's live theater work to family and friends. This helps to create a ‘warts and all' presentation, on that rightfully gives credit where credit was due in terms of the trailblazing that Milstead did as an openly gay man and performer but which also discusses Divine's flaws without glossing them over. Milstead did have a problem with overeating and had a tendency to spend money like it was going out of style. This would obviously lead to problems, the kind that would only be exacerbated by the constant touring demands of his career.
At ninety minutes the movie zips by at a ridiculously quick pace. In fact, it leaves you wanting more. It's quite a humorous film but never disrespectful of its subject, which makes for a movie that is both entertaining and quite illuminating. You don't have to be a Divine devotee to enjoy this or even a John Waters fan (though of course it helps). This really should be an enjoyable and fascinating watch for anyone interested in a well told biography of a fascinating subject.
I Am Divine arrives on DVD in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. While some of the older film clips are a bit ragged and some of the tape source interview snippets are soft looking, the newly shot footage is colorful, bright and detailed. The disc is well authored and there are no problems with obvious compression artifacts or color reproduction and edge enhancement is never an issue. Black levels are good and all in all the movie looks just fine on DVD.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, which comes with optional subtitles in English only, is also quite good. An optional English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track is also included. The 5.1 mix is the way to go, as it spreads out the music nicely in a few spots. Other than that, both tracks are fairly similar. As this is a feature made up primarily of interview clips and older archival clips surround activity can be limited and things are definitely front heavy but dialogue remains quite clean and clear and always easy to follow. There's some minor hiss in some of the older clips but that's the nature of the beast when working with archival materials. No complaints here, the movie sounds great.
The extras start off with a commentary track from Director Jeffrey Schwarz, Producer Lotti Phariss and actress/friend Mink Stole that goes into quite a bit of detail as to how this project originated and the work that went into putting it together. Schwarz has more to say than the others but each participant gets a chance to share some stories with Stole offering up a few first-hand accounts about what it was like working with Divine on various projects. Although there are a few spots where some dead air slows things down a bit, for the most part this is a well-paced and interesting talk that offers up a nice mix of background information and warm humor.
Additionally, the disc also includes about a half an hour's worth of deleted scenes. In here you'll find more interview clips with most of the key interviewees featured in the final cut of the movie, including Divine's mother and John Waters. Most of this material is great and honestly, even if it upped the running time past the two hour mark, it might have worked better had it been left in the feature. Rounding out the extras is a trailer for the feature, trailers for a few unrelated Wolfe Video properties, menus and chapter selection.
I Am Divine is a fascinating look back at the life and influence of a true counter culture icon. It's a humorous piece in so much as it has to be while covering a lot of what Divine did, but it treats its subject very respectively without ever resorting to wanton praise or sugar coating and it would seem to present a pretty honest portrait of a true original. The DVD looks and sounds good and the deleted scenes and commentary are both solid extras. All in all, a pretty great release and one that comes 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.