Reelin’ & Rockin’ – Though PG-13, ‘Cry-Baby’ is 100% John Waters

GameStop, Inc.

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For fans of trash cinema something shocking happened in 1988 – John Waters made a PG movie, Hairspray. Even more shocking, John Waters had a hit, albeit a smaller one. Sadly, it was Waters’ last collaboration with Divine, the larger than life drag queen who starred in a number of his films. Following the success of Hairspray, Waters would be forced into something he’d done only once before – make a movie without Divine. Along with Hairspray, Cry-Baby is the only other Waters film without an R, NC-17, or no rating. It combines three things that Waters has filled his films with since his early work – old rock ‘n’ roll, teenage rebellion, and Baltimore.

At a Baltimore high school in 1954, the school is divided into two groups – the Squares and the Drapes. The Drapes consist of their leader, Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp), his pregnant sister, Pepper (Ricki Lake), the awkward couple of Milton (Darren E. Burrows) and Hatchetface (Kim McGuire), and Wanda Woodward (Traci Lords), a blonde bombshell. Cry-Baby has his eyes on Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane) much to the chagrin of her grandmother (Polly Bergen) and Baldwin (Stephen Mailer), a Drape leader and super-WASP. One evening, Allison accompanies Cry-Baby to his Aunt (Susan Tyrrell) and Uncle’s (Iggy Pop) spot at Turkey Point, where hormones and rock ‘n’ roll run concurrently in an orgiastic frenzy. During the evening’s festivities, the Squares vandalize the Drapes’ property, including Cry-Baby’s beloved motorcycle. A massive melee breaks out and Cry-Baby is arrested. Sentenced to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Cry-Baby laments the separation from his love, but Allison is wracked with doubts about Cry-Baby after hearing the lies of Lenora Frigid (Kim Webb), a girl obsessed with Cry-Baby to point of lying about carrying his child. Tensions in the town reach a breaking point and a showdown between the Squares and Drapes is inevitable.

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What a bunch of squares, man.

The central conflict of Cry-Baby focuses on a culture clash. The upper class WASPs of the Squares are desperate to squash what they see as plebian delinquents with their loud bawdy music. These clashes are present in practically every one of John Waters’ films – whether the messed up Fishpaw family and the outraged moralistic masses of Polyester or the perverse skewing of fashion and art in Female Trouble. Another theme of Waters’ film that is present is the twisted view of institutions. Like the demented convent of Polyester, Waters’ has an orphanage with children on display is glass enclosures with props to accentuate their environment. And Cry-Baby’s father having been executed for being the Alphabet Bomber rounds out the Waters tropes, his films always having a strong element related to sensationalized horrors.

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All of them delinquents.

The music of Cry-Baby mostly consists of rockabilly, however, there is a fair amount of doo-wop in the mix. Cry-Baby’s vocals were performed by James Intveld, who masterfully does the hiccup like you’d hear on an old Charlie Feathers record. Providing the singing voice of Allison was Rachel Sweet, who from one song to next must go from a sweet, high-pitched version of pasty-white doo-wop to a scratchier, booze and cigarettes infused rockabilly style like Wanda Jackson. While some of the production values of the songs recorded for the film don’t necessarily blend seamlessly, these songs were crafted by people keenly aware of early rock ‘n’ roll; King Cry-Baby was written by the great Doc Pomus with Dave Alvin. On top of the music recorded for the movie, Waters fills the soundtracks with Rubber Biscuit by The Chips, Women in Cadillacs by The Nite Riders, and Jail Bird by Sonny Knight, among others. The legendary punk band The Cramps recorded demos for the film that were rejected, though the band did issue the demos on vinyl shortly after being rejected. A few years back when I got to meet John Waters, I asked him why he turned down The Cramps, a band that would seemingly mesh perfectly with his style. He said, “They were in on the joke.”

When Cry-Baby performs the previously mentioned King Cry-Baby at Turkey Point, he does so in front of a large confederate flag. While Maryland never joined the Confederacy, it was a slave holding state. In the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln won an estimated 2.5% of the vote. As war began to seem inevitable, martial law was declared in Baltimore. Large numbers of Maryland’s population migrated south in order to join the Confederacy. Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was from Maryland. There are monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson in Baltimore, and there was even a retirement home for old Confederates until 1932. So when Waters has the Stars and Bars emblazoned on screen, he’s not using as some kind of rebel symbolism, he’s tying it directly into the region’s history, as he does with nearly all of his works.

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Just the Godfather of Punk bathing in a bucket.

As with Hairspray, Cry-Baby was turned into a Broadway musical. While not the enormous success of Hairspray, it still showed just how much Waters and his work has seeped into the mainstream. Always the outsider, the king of the freaks, Waters is now enjoying a prestige that was beyond unthinkable when Pink Flamingos hit screens 40 years ago even though he hasn’t made a movie in a decade, his last film was 2004’s A Dirty Shame. In the time between A Dirty Shame and the present, Waters’ has found success as an author. His latest book is a travelogue about hitchhiking through America, Carsick. Today (September 5th) in New York, a retrospective of Waters’ works started at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and runs until September 14th. More than anything, Cry-Baby presents that Waters’ cinematic voice is so unique that it bleeds through rating and content. Never overtly shocking or disgusting, Cry-Baby still has that unmistakable John Waters feel. Before re-watching it for this column, I used to think that Cry-Baby was probably Waters’ weakest effort, and I may still think that, but it’s not a bad movie. Actually, it’s pretty damn great. If you don’t agree, well, you’re just square.

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