Back to Normality...What's Normal Anyway? (A Film Series): #4

It is officially Autumn and time to wrap up the series Back to Normality...What's Normal Anyway? - a look at the quirky, offbeat, anything but typical school. We found out how to be feminist and a "Cool Rider" in Grease 2. Then we lived out every teen's dream of rocking out with The Ramones in their school hallways of Rock 'n' Roll High School. Last week, we popped over across the pond to experience boarding school life, the St Trinian's way.

One common thread in each film is, good friends can really help one get through the day-to-day and drama of high school life. Today's film is no exception, but of course in John Waters' world you need good friends and a whole lot of Hairspray


Hairspray (1988)

Hairspray has been turned into a broadway musical and seen that musical turned into a musical, but nothing can match the original. Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) not only loves to dance but she loves watching people dance on the local and popular Baltimore teenage dance show, ala American Bandstand-esque, The Corny Collins Show (and actually based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show).

After winning a dance competition put on by The Corny Collins Show, Tracy, along with her best friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers) decide to try out. Tracy's positive attitude and awesome dance moves land her a spot. Amber Von Tussle (Vitamin C), the show's current star, attempts at fat-shaming has zero effect on her fellow dancers (it should be noted fellow dancer Iggy is played by Josh Charles) and actually leads to a one day suspension--just enough time to let Tracy shine. She gets to lead a dance, steal Amber's boyfriend Link (Michael St. Gerard), and gets a sponsor (Hefty Hideaway). Not bad in an afternoon's work. Her parents Edna (Divine) and Wilbur Turnbald (Jerry Stiller (who are usually a little skeptical over Tracy's style and annoyed at her dance obsession, are as you would hope, elated. 

Life, of course, is anything but perfect. Tracy gets in trouble at school for being a hair-hopper, which is a person with big, high hair (though as noted, "Tracy's "flamboyant flip" is all the rage"). 

But more importantly, the film depicts 1960's racial tension of Baltimore, and indeed, race relations is a huge part of the story. The Corny Collins Show has only one dedicated day a month when non-whites can dance on the show, which they dub "Negro Day." Penny's mother Prudence (Joann Havrilla) hires a mental shrink, Dr. Fredrickson (played by the writer and director John Waters), to cure her for being a "checkerboard chick" dating Seaweed (Clayton Prince). Motormouth Maybelle (Ruth Brown) can work on the show ("No matter what you've heard, we are gonna teach the white children how to do The Bird!"), but her daughter is turned away on the pre-teen day because of the color of her skin. Corny Collins (Shawn Thompson) and his assistant Tammy (Mink Stole) are all for integration, but the racist station owner, Arvin Hodgepile (also played by Divine) thinks otherwise. Then you have Amber's parents, Velma (Deborah Harry) and Franklin Von Tussle (Sonny Bono), trying desperately to keep their amusement park Gwynn Oak Amusement Park segregated, at least when they are not conspiring to help their daughter win Miss Auto Show 1963 pageant in a strange, goofy attempt at sabotage and violence.

Can a teen really be confident in her skin, get the guy, fight for racial equality ("I'm an integrationist. We shall overcome someday."), survive an encounter with beatniks (played by Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek of The Cars), and beat all the odds to win a beauty contest all while wearing a cockroach-print dress ("Roaches? Our little Tracy's a clean teen!")?

Tracy has my vote, as she will yours the moment you dive into this wonderful cult classic. Maybe dancing cannot cure all, but in Hairspray it is a language that truly can and does bring people together. Tracy is fortunate in her parents and her best friend, and of course, those she chooses to make friends with through the film. They are her stronghold, just as much as the can of hairspray can hold her locks firmly in place.  

Check out the trailer below and track down this film if you have never experienced its weird and wonderful story. Normal is what you want it to be. For me, normal is offbeat and quirky. Normal is Grease 2, Rock 'n' Roll High School, St. Trinians, and of course, Hairspray.  I hope you have enjoyed this series and will be back for a new film series next week.