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

John Waters’s Period Pieces as Punk Culture History Lessons

One of the most fascinating aspects of early John Waters pictures like Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos is how at home they feel with punk culture despite being released well before punk even had a name. Waters’s early 70s freak shows arrived at a time when feel-good Free Love vibes dominated the counterculture, feeling completely out of step in their amoral nastiness & gleeful shock value chaos. The leopard print & leather costuming, bright hair dye, old cars, and return to straightforward rock n’ roll (as opposed to the era’s psychedelic folk & bloated arena rock) of Waters’s early films telegraphed & possibly influenced a lot of what the punk subculture would come to accept as identifiers & badges of dishonor in the years to follow. It’d be easy to think of Multiple Maniacs & Pink Flamingos as being ahead of their time in that way, but a lot of those signifiers of tackiness & bad taste were actually deliberately old-fashioned & out of style holdovers from the 50s & 60s. Waters’s freak show atrocities were poor, degenerate weirdos, conspicuously out of step with the times & repurposing fashion from their parents’ closets and secondhand stores around Baltimore. Waters’s early films suggest that punk culture had existed long before it had a name; watching teen rebels in 1950s garb devour cops alive in Pink Flamingos and defile Catholic churches with blasphemous ass play in Multiple Maniacs bridges the gap between early rock n’ roll rebels & the punk era’s return to that nasty simplicity by skipping over hippie niceness entirely. When the director made his move into mainstream filmmaking with the period pieces Hairspray & Cry-Baby in the 1980s, he made that connection even more explicit, detailing the undercurrent of punk culture rebelliousness that’s always existed among teen outsiders & societal rejects.

Waters often cites Hairspray as the most subversive film of his career. The idea that the unapologetically queer director of some of the greatest shock value films of all time somehow made a massively popular PG-rated comedy about the evils of racism definitely feels like a provocateur getting away with something. Set in early 1960s Baltimore, Hairspray recreates the American Bandstand era pop music mania of Waters’s youth both as a nexus of nostalgia for the time’s tacky fashions & as a platform to discuss the hypocrisy of cultural appropriation. The white teens of the film’s bygone suburbia structure their entire lives around dancing on television to black music, but refuse to integrate socially with actual black people. A baby-faced Ricki Lake stars as Waters’s chief rabble-rouser, who protests Baltimore’s local Bandstand knockoff (The Corny Collins Show) for failing to racially integrate beyond featuring black musicians as performers. This defiance (on top of her default outsider status for being heavier than other teen girls on the show) leads our hero down a back alley world of beatniks, hair hoppers, and black Baltimore teens she didn’t have prior access to at home with her worrisome parents (Divine & Jerry Stiller, history’s greatest power couple). Hairspray somewhat succumbs to the common Hollywood problem of glorifying white people for solving racism, but it also makes it clear that America’s worst monsters are smiling, white, suburban faces. As Edith Massey warns in Female Trouble, “The world of heterosexuals is a sick & boring life.” With the exception of the beatniks, whose portrayal’s even more cartoonish than the Roger Corman take in Bucket of Blood, teen counterculture is presented here as the sane alternative to the hideous norm. Hair hopper fashion is far from the signifiers of punk telegraphed in earlier Waters films, but it is equally garish and designed to outrage parents. The music may also be a much simpler, more soulful version of rock n’ roll, but it’s operating with the same rebellious spirit that punk aspired to echo as a disruption to hippie feel-goodery. Hairspray offers Waters’s tamest (and possibly most subversive) version of protopunk teen rebellion, but its historical sense of outrageous teen fashion & disgust with racial fascism are at least in line with punk ideology.

The punk undercurrent is much more immediately apparent in Hairspray‘s follow-up, Cry-Baby. Flipping the calendar back even further to the teen rebels of the 1950s, Cry-Baby is a movie musical pastiche of teen gang melodramas like The Wild One & Rebel Without a Cause (with a little Jailhouse Rick thrown in for good measure). Johnny Depp stars as the titular Cry-Baby, a teenage delinquent who constantly breaks laws to honor the lives of his dead criminal parents, but then cries for the evil things he has to do in their name. The leather jackets & straightforward rock n’ roll of Cry-Baby‘s world are a clear source of inspiration for punk’s barebones, no frills ethos. Although racism is certainly at play in suburban Baltimore’s hatred of its teen counterculture element, the movie distills its “squares” vs. “drapes” dichotomy by making teenage outsiders’ very existence the scourge that’s being targeted. When a young teenybopper dares to cross the social line dividing squares & drapes (becoming a “scrape” hybrid, according to Ricki Lake’s crony), she completes the transformation with a Bad Girl Beauty Makeover, which is very similar to the way young outsiders are inducted into punk culture with shaved heads, piercings, new names, etc. I’m not a huge fan of the songs performed during Cry-Baby‘s traditional movie musical numbers, but seeing the same mainstream production design from Hairspray being applied to a love letter to teenage delinquency in those moments of Hollywood Tradition feels like yet another subversive act on Waters’s part. Waters looks back to the Elvis musicals of his youth to draw a direct connection from the leather jacket rock n’ roll of that era to the protopunk outsider freaks he previously featured in his early Dreamlanders productions. He may have been ahead of the curve on punk culture, but he’s more than willing to provide historical context on why he wasn’t the first to get there.

Just in case you weren’t already clued in by the teenage delinquency and hair hopping social outrage of his two period pieces as punk culture history lessons, Waters also cast two punk icons in central roles in the films. In Hairspray, Debbie Harry features as the racist, uptight mother of one of the most popular dancers on The Corny Collins Show. Cry-Baby casts Iggy Pop as a wild-eyed societal outcast who never outgrew his rebellious teen spirit (not that he really stood much of a chance in avoiding that). Waters’s early 70s version of protopunk grime feels far less out of nowhere after the historical context laid down in these two period pieces, which is an invaluable history lesson on punk’s eternal spirit in teen awkwardness & angst, political or otherwise. More importantly, though, these two films allow Waters an opportunity to contrast the warmth & righteousness of those outsider communities with the grotesque horrors of straight, square suburbia. Polyester was an epiphanic moment in the filmmaker’s career where the aping of Douglas Sirk melodramas showed him the value of contrasting his societal freakshow outsiders with straight-laced, “normal” settings. Hairspray & Cry-Baby focused more intently on exposing these settings as hateful, destructive forces. By bringing his cavalcade of horrors to suburbia, Waters found a chance to emphasize how mainstream culture was so much worse, from the broken legal system to white women spouting hateful racism in the faces of black youth to the grotesque wet smacks of heterosexual teens making out (which is far more disgusting than watching Divine eat dog shit, to be honest). John Waters’s punk culture history lessons are not only a great reminder of the consistent presence of teenage delinquents & societal outcasts in modern American life, but also a necessary indictment of the hatefully homogenized culture those small scale rebels buck against with their mere existence. The great punchline to that joke, of course, is that the mainstream culture he skewered in those two titles ate up that shit & financially sealed his fate in filmmaking infamy. He not only profiled the evolution of punk spirit through the ages, but also sold that historical glorification to the very people who made punk politically & culturally necessary.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #38 of The Swampflix Podcast: NOMA’s John Waters Film Fest & Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980)

Welcome to Episode #38 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our thirty-eighth episode, we tackle the career of our favorite living artist/human being. Brandon and Britnee recap the New Orleans Museum of Art’s recent summertime John Waters Film Festival with fellow Krewe Divine co-founder Virginia Ruth. Also, Britnee makes Brandon watch the Golan-Globus horror comedy Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980) for the first time. Enjoy!

-Britnee Lombas & Brandon Ledet