He is known as the Pope of Trash, peddling movies which have shocked audiences and angered the censors since the 70s. But nothing John Waters ever committed to celluloid is as shocking as his decision to allow Cheaper by the Dozen 2 director Adam Shankman, to remake his cheerful hit Hairspray.
Waters made his name with films such as Mondo Trash, Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, which ooze trashiness in both style and content. The sacred 180° rule of filming is often broken, heads are cut out of the picture, and shots of anal flexing, bestiality and diseased, violating penises are held for that little bit too long. Those films were made with a total dearth of means, Waters borrowing money from his father and roping in his friends and friends’ friends to act, paint sets and primp hair.
By the time the cameras were rolling for Hairspray, however, Waters’ bank balance had grown in inverse correlation with his taste for the disgusting. Boasting a healthy budget and a Hollywood studio, Waters’ 1988 film is a far cry from his early movies. The film is about Tracey Turnblad – an overweight teen from Baltimore who dances her way onto The Corney Collins Show, managing to break down redneck segregation policies of 1960s America as she goes. With a cracking soundtrack, a polished script and the newly discovered charming teenage star Ricki Lake, Waters had himself his first mainstream hit.
Two decades later, the film has been remade with a new soundtrack, an altered script, a new undiscovered leading actress and, playing her mother, a cross-dressing John Travolta in a fat suit. Does anyone find fat suits funny? Certainly Terry Jones’ Mr Creosote character raised a few laughs in The Meaning of Life in 1983, but since then? Eddie Murphy thumped about as an overweight woman in Norbit, seeing the film belly-flop at the box office. It seems that one too many Friends re-runs has extinguished our appetite for prosthetic chins and spare tyres.
Unlike Travolta, Divine, who played Tracey’s mother Edna in Waters’ Hairspray, had no need for fake weight. A naturally hefty man, Divine only needed a stuffed bra to cut a matronesque figure. Indeed, it is his size that defined him as an iconic cinema star. Divine’s ample girth was matched by his skyscraping hair, his killer heels and his raised eyebrows – pencilled so high he had to shave back his hairline to make space. He turns a number of heads when strutting down a busy Baltimore road in Waters’ seminal work Pink Flamingos. These onlookers, as Waters revealed, were no stage-groomed extras, but genuine shoppers walking past the camera, startled to see a 20-stone transvestite made up like Elizabeth Taylor on acid. Divine looked like this on and off set. Having originally set out to subvert the transvestite scene – where Judy Garland impersonators featured heavily – Divine was nurtured by Waters into a fully-fledged actor equally as able to play a caring mother (Hairspray, Polyester) as a dog-shit-eating trashbag (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble).
But casting aside, it is Hairspray‘s newly re-styled soundtrack that commits the biggest crime. Waters’ soundtracks have always evoked the spirit of his films. Divine struts his filthy self to the tune of Little Richard’s ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ in Pink Flamingos, while Female Trouble opens to a lounge tune of the same title. Written by Waters and sung by Divine, it strikes the tragicomic chord that characterises the film. In Hairspray the soundtrack transcends this scene-setting importance. Hairspray being a film about dancing, the music comes from within the story in most scenes – from the dancehall’s stereo or straight from the bands employed to play on The Corney Collins Show. The music perfectly demonstrates the clash between black and white cultures. Well-groomed white teens shake a tail feather to black classics by The Five Du Tones and Barbara Lynn, while their black counterparts do the same thing but hidden away from both the media spotlight and the white neighbourhood. In one scene, a pushy white mother, played by Deborah Harry, urges her teenage daughter to listen to white artists such as Shelley Fabares and Connie Francis rather than the ‘coloured music’ she likes to listen to.
So if anything, it is for its great soundtrack that Hairspray is remembered. The belting numbers twist and shout throughout the film, and have been immortalised by new generations who know and love the film. So why oh why does the Hairspray remake dispose of these tunes? Instead of the original music we have a tailor-made soundtrack that is as anachronistic as it is tuneless. In its jangly Broadway harmonies it emits a rather unsubtle whiff of Disney. In fact, the new songs are so bland they make you want to eat dog shit just to reawaken your senses.
It poses the question which Waters himself asked about movie remakes. Speaking about a proposed US version of Pedro Almodóvar’s Women on the Verge of Nervous Breakdown, he said: ‘Why would you remake a great movie? You should remake the bad ones.’
You said it, John.