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.