O Baltimore, city of Edgar Allan Poe and H.L. Mencken, of Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson, of aluminum-siding salesmen and rampaging transvestites! How lucky thou art to have two sublimely eccentric moviemakers, Barry Levinson and John Waters, as native sons who sing your praises! Levinson set his two best movies, Diner and Tin Men, in the Baltimore of the late '50s and early '60s. Waters has made all eleven of his pictures, from the coprophagous comedy Pink Flamingos to the all-stinking Polyester (filmed in Odorama), in his hometown.
At first Waters worked on outlaw subjects and weeny budgets. Now that few moviegoers can be outraged by the antics of his crass menagerie, this past master of bad taste has pulled the ultimate shockeroo: he has made a PG movie. Even more horrifying, Hairspray is in imminent danger of becoming a mainstream hit. Baltimore may never forgive him.
Welcome back to 1962, when the city had already established its reputation as the "hairdo capital of the world." On Corny Collins' TV dance party, white teenagers perform all the latest dances -- the Madison, the Continental, the Pony -- and are local heroes to every adolescent. Chief among these starlets is Amber Von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick), a snooty princess whose dad (Sonny Bono) is the "richest man in East Baltimore" and whose mom (Debbie Harry), Miss Soft Crab of 1945, pours all her ambition into Amber. Every afternoon the pouty miss must practice the cha-cha and the Mashed Potato under Mom's eagle eye. "I want you to get more close-ups on that show," Mom admonishes, "or I'm sending you to Catholic school!" Eeuuuu!
Amber soon finds she has a zaftig rival: Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake), who is plump, perky and, pound for bouffanted pound, the snappiest Caucasian dancer in town. The girl has that je ne sais quoi called Star Quality. Soon Tracy is outshining Amber on TV, modeling dresses for a full-figure salon called the Hefty Hideaway and causing a rumpus by insisting that black teenagers be allowed to dance along with whites on Corny's show.
Stardom proves no cinch for our heroine. The school authorities declare that Tracy's hairdo is a "hair-don't" and exile her to the special ed class. She and Link Larkin (Michael St. Gerard), her "common-law boyfriend," are ostracized from their keen teen group. Her best friend, Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers), is denounced as a "checkerboard chick" for dating a black student and is tortured by a loopy psychiatrist. And Amber's mom starts a catty rumor about Tracy: "For all we know, she could be high yellow."
For his story about integration, Waters has aptly miscegenated two irreconcilable movie genres: the teen flick and the message movie. He has invaded John Hughes territory, but with his own road map. No Molly Ringwald needed; Lake is the dream image of every girl who has ever craved that eighth Twinkie. No teen realism here, just a romp through the pastel homes and matching mother-daughter outfits of a more naive era. No anxious parental conflict, at least when Tracy's mom is played by Divine, the 300-lb. actor who always looks the height of fashion in a housedress. And no sweat, Baltimore: Waters has done you proud. Watch the moon shimmer in a puddle (as a rat crawls through it). See Tracy triumphant, in her pink roach-patterned evening gown. See Hairspray too. It's light and airy, but it will stick around: the first aerosol movie.