Chicago (2002) as the Template for a Proper John Waters Musical

I have never seen the 2007 movie musical Hairspray. Despite my bottomless appetite for John Waters #content and my morbid curiosity over the nightmarish images of John Travolta in prosthetic makeup & Divine drag, I’ve just never had much interest in watching the cursed thing. Waters would likely tell you that having such a wholesome, mainstream reinterpretation of his work out in wide distribution is a subversive act in itself, like how Mark Mothersbaugh openly revels in slipping subliminal messages into his corporate advertising jingles. He’s probably right too; the amount of people who’ve seen the 2007 musical Hairspray but not the 1988 original is alarming, and speaks to the power of having your messages amplified by major media players like Warner Bros. I just see more Broadway in the film’s advertising & surface details than I see Mortville or Dreamlanders, and unless I take a sudden unexpected swerve into loving showtunes I doubt that blindspot will be corrected any time soon.

There is a mainstream musical I believe taps into an authentic John Waters sensibility, however, one that was first staged on Broadway when Waters was in his mid-1970s prime. In fact, it’s so mainstream that its movie adaptation won six Oscars in its ceremony year, including Best Picture. 2002’s Chicago is so wrapped up in the mood & signifiers of its source material’s creator that it’s practically a work of Bob Fosse pastiche, regurgitating the iconic imagery & editing trickery of the Fosse classic Cabaret for a post-Baz Luhrmann world. That early-aughts burlesque revival aesthetic has little, if anything, to do with Waters’s own filmmaking sensibilities, which are more akin to a proto-punk landfill than anything as sleek as what you’ll see onscreen in Chicago. Where Fosse & Waters overlap is in their shared themes & storytelling concerns. While the Hairspray musical restages a very specific, single-film John Waters story in a new medium & context, Chicago instead tackles a broad topic that preoccupied Waters for almost the entirety of his filmmaking career (and his private life): tabloid-famous murderers.

When recently discovering Gus Van Sant’s (incredibly underrated) To Die For, it struck me how few mainstream movies there are on its same thematic wavelength. Nicole Kidman stars in the picture as a bubbly femme fatale who greatly enjoys the tabloid fame she earns by murdering her husband, likening it to the celebrity of a prime-time television actress. The only other big-name Hollywood films I could think of on that topic were Gone Girl and, of course, Chicago – in which Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones compete with each other to see who can turn their murderous crimes of passion into bigger press. For his part, John Waters has made at least six films on the subject (Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Multiple Maniacs, Serial Mom, Mondo Trasho, and Cecil B. Demented), most of which star Divine—the greatest drag queen of all time—as an unrepentant serial killer who literally gets off on the fame that accompanies being a murderess. In To Die For & Gone Girl, Kidman & Pike’s thrills over the press their crimes generate are mostly communicated through a wicked spark in their eyes. By contrast, Divine proudly boasts her murderous deeds to the press in stomach-turning monologues, pronouncing things like “Take a good look at me because I’m going to be on the front of every newspaper in this country tomorrow. You’re looking at crime personified and don’t you forget it!” and “Kill everyone now. Condone first-degree murder. Advocate cannibalism. Eat shit. Filth is my politics. Filth is my life!”. The murder-as-entertainment chanteuses of Chicago are a little coyer in front of the newspaper cameras & microphones that swarm them on courthouse steps, but in private they’re just as big of murderous braggards as Divine, which is rare to see in any Hollywood film, much less a musical.

This thematic overlap is likely one of happenstance. While the stage musical Chicago was first performed in the early days of Waters’s career, it was based on an eponymous dramatic play that was first staged a half-century earlier in the 1920s. The play was a satirical exaggeration of real-life tabloid celebrities of flapper-era Chicago who were famous solely because they were a) sexy and b) murderers. In his own life, Waters has long been fascinated by fame-through-crime celebrity, often attending public trials as a spectator as if he were watching live theater. In his first printed memoir Shock Value he writes, “Going to a sensational murder trial is the only way I can relax. Some people collect stamps, others pursue unfathomable physical-fitness programs, but the only way I can completely escape my everyday worries is to hop on a plane and head for the nearest media circus in a courtroom.” This fascination with criminal celebrity has led to real-life friendships with Death Row inmates, former Manson Family members, and eventual honorary Dreamlander Patty Hearst. And since Waters is obviously not entirely opposed to the idea of musical theatre as a medium—given his late-80s two-punch of Cry-Baby and HairsprayChicago feels oddly close to his auteurist preoccupations as a storyteller. He even joked during early rehearsals of Hairspray that his unexpected career shift to Broadway made him feel like he was Bob Fosse. I doubt Chicago was the impetus for this shift (the Hairspray musical was first performed around the time of the film’s 2002 release, so they were essentially contemporaries), but it unexpectedly fits the template of a John Waters story once you look past its Fosse-specific surface details.

It makes sense to me that a proper John Waters musical would turn the director’s career-long, life-defining obsession with unrepentant femme celebrity criminals into a series of showstopping numbers about sociopathy & sexual perversion. The Hairspray movie musical may have Waters’s stamp of approval as an act of mainstream cultural subversion (and his participation in a cameo role as a trenchcoat flasher), but Chicago feels much more narratively in tune with Waters’s directorial career at large. Picture a Pink Flamingos musical where Babs Johnson competes with the Marbles to see who can drum up the most press with their evil, murderous deeds – in song! Or a Female Trouble musical where Dawn Davenport sings her final monologue to her loyal “fans” at home from the electric chair. You could even copy the courtroom circus number from Chicago wholesale for a musical version of Serial Mom. I’m not saying that any of those possibilities would automatically be great, but any one of them would have a greater chance of tapping into a genuine Waters sensibility than the cursed Hairspray musical. All you’d have to do is swap out Chicago‘s cabaret décor & Fosse signifiers for some trash piles and a trailer park. You could probably even keep Zellweger’s casting as the lead, as she’s already tapping into the dazed starlet energy Melanie Griffith’s Honey Whitlock character served in Cecil B. Demented irl.

-Brandon Ledet

The Phantom (1996)

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Common wisdom seems to be that the film market is currently flooded with so many comic book properties that mainstream audiences will soon be experiencing a wicked case of “superhero fatigue” and the whole Marvel/DC empire will crumble. So far I seem to be experiencing the opposite effect. All of these rampant comic book adaptations have sent me on something of a superhero tangent and I’ve been finding myself looking back to comic book cinema of the past for smaller titles I might’ve missed over the years. Sometimes this urge is a blessing, like when it lead me to Sam Raimi’s goofily masterful Darkman. In the case of The Phantom, however, I’m not so sure I’m on the right path.

Based on a comic strip that’s been running continuously to this day since the 1930s, The Phantom is a starring vehicle for 90s pop culture artifact Billy Zane. While dressed as his superhero alter ego The Phantom, Zane is decked out here in skintight purple spandex, black leather mask & boots, and a handgun he rarely touches. He also rides an immaculately white horse & keeps a gigantic wolf for a pet. Raised by Mongolian pirates 400 years in the past or some such nonsense, The Phantom is rumored to be an immortal ghost who protects the sanctity of the jungle from white archehologists & businessmen looking to plunder its resources. In the comics he does this through practical real world means (including some martial arts shamelessly designed to show off Zane’s fanny in purple spandex). The movie adds a supernatural element to the mix in some black magic skulls that can be exploited to bring on world domination. This addition threatens to make The Phantom entertaining as a campy trifle with half-assed old-world mysticism backing up its comic strip charm. Nothing significant comes of it, though, and after the novelty of seeing Billy Zane dressed up as a handsome, but deeply odd superhero wears off the rest of the film is a total bore.

The main problem with The Phantom is that it lacks any strong creative voice or soulful eccentricity required to make a comic book movie really work. Just match up your very favorite scene from this film to an 15 seconds of Darkman & you’ll see what I mean. There was a time when the legendary Joe Dante almost helmed The Phantom as a tongue-in-cheek camp fest and another where the delightfully sleazy Joel Schumacher could’ve dragged it down to the same so-bad-it’s-great depths he brought Batman & Robin (the one with the bat nipples & ice puns). Sadly, neither of those versions of The Phantom were meant to be and the film wound up in the dull, uninspired hands of the director of Free Willy & Operation Dumbo Drop. It’s easy to see how The Phantom could’ve swung in a more interesting direction. If nothing else, the slightly off performances of the spandex-clad Zane, O.G. Buffy Kristy Swanson, and a deliciously evil Catharine Zeta-Jones all feel like they belong in a much better movie (or at least a less boring one).

As with everything in criticism, my boredom with The Phantasm might’ve had a lot to do with personal taste. Once the wackier introductions to the film’s central scenario were out of the way, the movie would up playing like a second-rate version of the Indiana Jones franchise, especially in the way it mimicked the “Tune In Next Time!” structure of old, serialized action programs on the radio. There are Indiana Jones junkies out there who might be aching for more similar content to tide them over until the next inevitable reboot and those might be the only folks I’d recommend The Phantom to. Anyone who’s looking for an eccentric comic book movie here is a lot more likely to feel let down. The aspects of The Phantom that wound up fascinating me the most were more or less all related to its comic strip source material. The Phantom is credited as being the first superhero shown wearing the skintight jumpsuit that has become pretty much the standard for the genre and is often seen as a direct precursor to superhero titans like Batman, Superman, and Captain America. The artwork & narrative of the strip also has a distinct echo of the work of madman outsider Fletcher Hanks to it, especially of his character Fantomah, Mystery Woman of the Jungle.

It’s never a good sign when an adaptation is outshined this much by its source material and it seems audiences at the time of The Phantom‘s release shared wholeheartedly in my boredom. The film bombed at the box office and, despite strong VHS & DVD sales, never earned the two sequels in its originally-planned trilogy. I wouldn’t call this effect “superhero fatigue”, however. It’s more of a boring movie fatigue, as the superhero source material was the only interesting thing going for this slog, an effect that fades fast once the novelty of the live action comic strip wears off.

-Brandon Ledet