Waters renders 1960s Baltimore as almost another planet. The film doesn't say too much about the social issues it includes, but is still worthwhile. Rating: 6 out of 10.
A chubby girl named Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake)--gotta love the names in this movie--and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Leslie Ann Powers), whose name is a source of alliteration throughout the movie, are big fans the Corny Collins Show, a dance program broadcast from their hometown of Baltimore. They dance along to the program in Tracy's living room, much to the annoyance of Tracy's mother, played in typical outrageous fashion by Waters alumnus Divine, and to the outright scandalization of Penny's extremist caricature of a mother, Prudence (Jo Ann Havrilla). The girls eventually decide they want to be on the show, and Tracy becomes a prominently featured dancer, inspiring the jealously of Amber von Tussle (Colleen Fitzpatrick).
Everything seems hunky dory, and the film seems like a fairly straightforward 1960s period piece despite hairstyles and decor so exaggeratedly 'authentic' they make it seem like another planet. Then reality makes an appearance when Tracy and Penny become increasingly aware of and involved in the racial tension surrounding the show. As the girls take up the struggle against segregation, their parents react differently; Tracy's parents support them, though hesitantly at first; Prudence Pingleton goes ballistic. Corny Collins himself is at first only sympathetic to the cause of desegregation, but doesn't stay on the fence for long. The characters polarize fairly quickly after that, and by the last half hour there's no question who's good and who's bad. It all ends in a showdown, complete with dancing, of course, with a Miss Auto Show crown at stake, as well as the future of the show, and seemingly the cause of racial equality in all of Baltimore.
None of the characters of the film are complicated or terribly well developed; they are types, and nothing indicates that Waters wanted it any other way. Despite that, many performances are quite effective. Ricki Lake is delightful as the likeable Tracy, and pulls off the feat of dancing better than the more traditionally attractive (i.e., thinner) people around her. Leslie Ann Powers does fine as the geekish friend; as nearly as I can tell, she has not performed in television or movies before or since.
The cross-dressing Divine gets to play both sides of the fence, both as Edna Turnblad and Arvin Hodgepile, the racist jerk who owns the TV station the Collins show is on. The genius of this is that just by casting Divine, Waters made the character funny and outrageous, and didn't need a stellar performance or emotionally deep script to do it. The same goes for many of the other small parts: Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry (the singer from Blondie) as the evil parents of the witchy Amber, Ric Ocasek and Pia Zadora in a cameo as two beatniks, and Jerry Stiller as Tracy's father. How Waters pulled all of this off without making the entire endeavor seem contrived I don't know...I guess that's what makes him a great director.
Particularly enjoyable here is Michael St. Gerard as Link Larkin, who starts as Amber's beau before he starts flirting with Tracy. I kept noticing his uncanny resemblance to a young Elvis Presley, and then found out afterword that he has since played just that, doing turns as the King in Great Balls of Fire and in the 1990 television miniseries, "Elvis." Also great is Ruth Brown as Motormouth Mabelle, who is the host of the show's weekly "Negro Day," and is later a central figure in the fight for integration. Clayton Prince deserves mention as well as Mabelle's son Seaweed.
Amber is played by Colleen Fitzpatrick, who has gone on to gain some notoriety as the lead singer of "Eve's Plum," and as a solo singer under the monkier Vitamin C. I like that casting decision; she is pretty, but not in the generic supermodel way that many modern movies portray their witchy character.
I wasn't around for the real thing, but these seem like fairly impressive reconstructions of the dance moves of the 1960s. I'm told the portrayal of the fanatacism fans had for dance shows is dead on as well. The set design and costumes look great, opting for hyperbole rather than credible accuracy, and it lends to the otherworldly feeling of the story. That outlandish quality sets up the contrast of the down-to-earth social issues, the contrast of which works moderately well. My favorite dancing scene was the one set in the African American side of town--where the Corny Collins dance scenes were quaint and humorous, these were invigorating and even sexy.
Again, though the cast was seemingly often chosen for their looks or their associations, I can't hold it against the movie any more than I can the fact that Waters kept the characters fairly underdeveloped. It's mainly supposed to be a fun, visually exciting feel-good dance movie, and the outlandish cast enhances the fun without distracting too much.
More possibly problematic is the handling of an issue like racial segregation in a movie like this. Nothing comes off too heavy-handed, but I suspect many were unimpressed with these issues being used in such a breezy story. I can see the argument; things turn out just a little too neatly at the end. It is hard to believe that most of the public would get on the integration bandwagon as easily as it does here.
Nevertheless, though no staggering social statements are made here, I think it is good that the social injustices are not ignored, and the movie seems harmless in its handling of them. This movie proves that movies can be light and fairly shallow without being dumb and cheap, although directors regularly fail where Waters succeeds.