Baltimore, 1962. Chubby Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) is devoted to 'The Corny Collins Show', a local pop program in which white teens dance to cleaned-up black music. Tracy fights her way onto the show and leads a crusade for integrated television that soon sparks off riots in the local carnival.
John Waters’ first near-overground feature, this feels less like a project from the sicko who made Pink Flamingoes and his regular star Divine than something in the filmography of Baltimore's other resident director, Barry Levinson. Like Diner and Tin Men, Hairspray is rooted in recreation of and affection for an early '60s when things were even more confusing than they became.
Aside from one or two teeny zit and vomit jokes, the film is remarkably clean-spirited, with all the nastiness confined to the unpleasant Von Tussle family and a racist TV station owner and the teens settling their differences in the approved Frankie and Annette fashion by dancing their feet off. The social content is half-sent-up in a Russ Meyer sort of way, but Waters' pose as an amoral pervert slips somewhat and develops an alternate identity as a waspish, essentially moral, satirist.
Meanwhile, as vital social issues are debated, the kids are more interested in shimmying, turning their heads into abstract sculptures via ever more outrageous hairstyles and showing off pre-fab '60s outfits. This is the first Waters film feature actual technical competence behind the cameras, and brings on real performers rather than one-note grotesques.
Divine, in one of his last appearances, is still a limited actress, but despite having two roles doesn't have enough screen time to become as annoying as he too often does in starring roles. With cheerfully grotesque cameos from Debbie Harry, Pia Zadora and Sonny Bono. Thoroughly charming, and later a Broadway musical.
Thoroughly deserving of its cult status