Movie Review: Hairspray (1988)

Title: Hairspray
Release Date: February 16, 1988
Director: John Waters
Production Company: Stanley F. Buchthal | Robert Shaye Production

I’ve never watched a John Waters film and this seemed like a good entry point. I”m going to have to work my way up to the one featuring coprophagia.  Set in the early 60s, the film is set around a local Baltimore teenage dance show, The Corny Collins Show,  with a regular cast of teenagers ominously called the council.  “Pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake, before she was in the vanguard of sensationalist daytime talk show hosts) auditions and earns a spot on the council.  Tracy is well received by most of the cast and audience, but snobby Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick, well before she created an earworm about graduation under the stage name Vitamin C) targets Tracy for abuse.

Meanwhile, Tracy’s best friend Penny (Leslie Ann Powers) begins dating a Black classmate, Seaweed (Clayton Prince), who introduces Tracy to his mother Motormouth Maybelle Stubbs (legendary R&B artist Ruth Brown) and the dance parties of Baltimore’s Black neighborhoods.  Tracy sees the injustice of segregation and begins to use her fame to try to integrate The Corny Collins Show.  The movie does have a bit of a “white savior” narrative, but I felt that the movie was very honest about racism in a way you don’t usually get in nostalgic movies about teenagehood.

Waters’ quirky style and visual flair helps make the movie entertaining and accessible while being quietly subversive.  The cast is also great.  Divine and Jerry Stiller play Tracy’s working class parents while Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono are Amber’s ambitious stage parents.  And their are cameos by Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora which is something that could only happen in the 80s. It’s hard to believe a movie could bring together such an odd cast for a “message movie” that’s nevertheless delightfully weird.  The music is great too, and all the different dances done by the council make me realize that the kids dancing on TikTok today have a strong heritage.

Rating: ****1/2

Favorite Movies of All Time: 70-61

Over the past few years I’ve made a concerted effort to watch lots of movies considered to be among the best of all time.  Now, for the first time, I’ve made my own list of favorite movies of all time.  Every other Wednesday throughout 2022, I will be revealing ten movies in my list of 250 Favorite Movies of All Time.

250-241 200-190 150-141 100-91
240-231 190-181 140-131 90-81
230-221 180-171 130-121 80-71
220-211 170-161 120-111
210-201 160-151 110-101


Title: Ghostbusters
Director: Ivan Reitman
Cast: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, and Rick Moranis
Year: 1984
When did I first watch this movie?: 1984, at the cinema, three times!
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Childhood nostalgia plays a big part, but a high-concept comedy where every actor plays their role and delivers their lines perfectly is hard not to like.


Title: Back to the Future
Director:Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson
Year: 1985
When did I first watch this movie?: 1985, at the theaters
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: The mid-80s were a good time for high-concept comedies and this one is not only a funny adventure but a movie where everything set up early on is paid off perfectly by the denouement.


Title: Star Wars
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, David Prowse, James Earl Jones, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, and Peter Mayhew
Year: 1977
When did I first watch this movie?: 1977, in a theater on Martha’s Vineyard
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: I was 3-1/2 when I watched this for the first time and it may have been the first movie I saw in a movie theater, so Star Wars has really been part of my life for as long as I can remember.


Title:The Friends of Eddie Coyle 
Director: Peter Yates
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Peter Boyle, Richard Jordan,  and Steven Keats
When did I first watch this movie?: March 2020
Why is this one of my all time favorites?:  There was a period back in the 2000s when Boston crime movies were in vogue, but the best Boston crime movie ever was made decades earlier.  This is the working class mob film compared with the elite gangsters of The Godfather.


Title: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, and Bruce Bennett
Year: 1948
When did I first watch this movie?: December 2019
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: A psychological thriller that deconstructs masculinity in the clothing of a Western.


Title: Playtime 
Director: Jacques Tati
Cast: Jacques Tati, Barbara Dennek
Year: 1967
When did I first watch this movie?: March 2020
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: An experimental film with very little dialogue and almost no plot has never been so much fun!


Title: Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot 
Director: George Seaton
Cast: Jack Lord, Leora Dana, Robert Carroll, Charles G. Martin, Frederic Warriner, and Richard Striker
When did I first watch this movie?: June 1985 at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: There’s no rational explanation for my love of this movie which is shown as an orientation to Colonial Williamsburg visitors.  It’s so corny, and yet it also summarizes actual historical events in an entertaining way.


Title: Quest: A Portrait of an American Family
Director: Jonathan Olshefski
Cast: The Rainey family
When did I first watch this movie?: April 2019
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: A documentary that follows the life of a working class Black family in Philadelphia during the Obama years.


Title: A Close Shave
Director: Nick Park
Cast: Peter Sallis, Anne Reid
Year: 1996
When did I first watch this movie?: 1996, in the theater
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Wallis, Gromit, and a whole lot of sheep.  What could go wrong?


Title: On Golden Pond 
Director: Mark Rydell
Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda, Doug McKeon, Dabney Coleman and William Lanteau
When did I first watch this movie?: 1982 or 1983 on a tv broadcast
Why is this one of my all time favorites?: Hepburn and Fonda bring warmth and heart to their performances as an elderly couple dealing with aging and family struggles.