Baltimore 1963 and all the kids want to do is appear on The Corny Collins Show, the must-see dance extravanganza on local television. One of the teens desperate to appear is Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), who rushes home every day to watch with her friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers), even though Penny is frequently being "punished" by her strict parents and should be at home. When Corny Collins (Shawn Thompson) invites the viewers to turn up for a special that evening, Tracy and Penny make up their minds to go because they can dance just well as the stars of the show. But there will be complications...
It's curious that John Waters' best film should be his least controversial, but after a hiatus from Polyester he returned to the big screen with the splendiferous Hairpsray, having toned down the more objectionable elements - a bit of vomit here, a spot of insult comedy there - in favour of a right on parable of how racial integration was the best way forward for society. One might have wondered why the world in 1988, or America anyway, might need to be told, but this was both a celebration of diversity and a reminder that it was not so long ago that there were some pretty obnoxious attitudes prevalent.
Perhaps it's because Waters had such a serious message that he was less outrageous, but anyone thinking this meant less fun was sorely mistaken. Proving that camp, his stock in trade, could be a powerful force for good was the order of the day as the winning Tracy overcomes the prejudices of her hometown, whether it's anti-black or anti-fat, and brings the right people together to make a better world. Surely the Waters of old would have balked at such a sunny message, but with a newfound confidence he achieved the whole concept with great flair.
Not least because his eye and ear for the era he was working in was unerringly accurate. There are a wealth of now-forgotten dance and pop records on the soundtrack to go along with a few better known ones, which must have been easy on the budget but also highlights some great tunes. The dance routines are infectiously enjoyable, and you may be tempted to cut a rug as the cast go about their moves with aplomb. When Tracy reaches her goal of being one of the dancers on T.V., she finds an enemy in the shape of spoiled rich girl Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick), who not only is against our star but pro-segregation as well.
Tracy already thinks it's unfair that the "coloured" community is not allowed on the show, but when she makes friends with Seaweed (Clayton Prince), the son of entertainer Motormouth Maybelle (fifties singer Ruth Brown), in the special ed class they've both been held back in (him for his race, her because her hair was too big!), she becomes a crusader to bring the kids of black and white Baltimore together. All the way through she is supported by her father (Jerry Stiller) and her mother (Divine in sadly his last film for Waters before his untimely death), and Penny falls in love with Seaweed, another example of the sweet but subversive tone - subversive for the climate of 1963, at any rate. All the way through Hairspray is frequently laugh out loud funny, and it doubles as a damn fine musical as well, something not lost on the producers of, well, the musical version which was brought to the screen in 2007.
Witty American writer/director, the chief proponent of deliberate bad taste in American films. His early efforts are little more than glorified home movies, including Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs, but with the notorious Pink Flamingos Waters found his cult audience.