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Site created 12/15/97.

reviews added: 6/19/02

The John Waters Collection, Volume One

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

The Films of John Waters on DVD

The John Waters Collection, Volume One (Hairspray/Pecker)

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

1988 (2001) - New Line

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/A-/C-

Specs and Features

96 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), custom gatefold packaging, audio commentary by director John Waters and actress Ricki Lake, theatrical trailer, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (19 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

1998 (2001) - Fine Line Features (New Line)

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/B-

Specs and Features

86 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), custom gatefold packaging, audio commentary by director John Waters, theatrical trailer, Pecker's Snapshot Gallery featurette, cast and crew bios, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

To inaugurate their John Waters Collection of DVDs, New Line Home Video has packaged together the two most recent movies Waters made for the studio: Hairspray (from 1988) and Pecker (made ten years later). At first glance, it seems the unlikeliest of New Line's double features. Pecker had already been released on DVD in 1999, and the new set is simply a repackaging of that existing release. With most of Waters fans presumably already owning Pecker, it seems to me that it would make more sense to release Hairspray separately as well. The PG-rated Hairspray is certainly Waters' most accessible movie to mainstream audiences, and I would imagine it would sell more copies individually than bound to the R-rated Pecker. That aside, the two movies actually compliment each other quite well. Hairspray and Pecker are two of John Waters' most joyous and exuberant movies. If you can set aside whatever qualms you might have about full frontal nudity, rats having sex, and the fine art of teabagging, you should find that if you enjoy Hairspray, you'll also like Pecker.

At its core, Hairspray is a musical comedy about integration. Its heroine is Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake, making her film debut), an overweight "hair hopper" who dreams of being a Council member on TV's Corny Collins Show, an extremely popular after-school TV dance program based on a real-life Baltimore program called The Buddy Deane Show. Amazingly enough, her dreams come true and she soon finds herself vying for the coveted Miss Auto Show title. But these are turbulent times for Baltimore. Blacks and whites are strictly segregated, especially when it comes to something physical and public like dancing on TV. When a demonstration in favor of integrating The Corny Collins Show lands Tracy in reform school, the issue is raised to a new level.

Hairspray is a warm, heartfelt movie that radiates nostalgia from every frame. It's obvious that Waters loves the period, and he fills the movie with details that could only come from someone who was really there. The story gets slightly derailed towards the end, but the movie's spirit and charm is hard to resist. Hairspray is also notable as Waters' last film with the great Divine, who died shortly after the movie opened. Divine is given two roles here, as Tracy's mother, Edna, and as the racist (male) TV station owner. Divine is often remembered as a fearless and flamboyant performer, but Hairspray proves that he was also a tremendous character actor. The cast is rounded out in typically eclectic Waters fashion, with fine performances by Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry, Jerry Stiller, Michael St. Gerard (who would go on to play Elvis on TV), Colleen Fitzpatrick (currently better known as Vitamin C) and cameo appearances by Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek from The Cars, as a beatnik couple who urges the kids to "get naked and smoke!"

With Pecker, Waters turns his attention to the art world. Pecker (Edward Furlong) is a happy-go-lucky Baltimore kid, who obsessively snaps photos with a beat up old camera his mother (Mary Kay Place) discovered in her thrift shop. His first showcase, held at the greasy spoon where he works, attracts the attention of a New York gallery owner (Lili Taylor). She offers Pecker a show in the big city and he immediately becomes the toast of the art scene. But fame and fortune isn't all it's cracked up to be. Once everyone knows who he is and what he's doing, people become self-conscious about "being art".

Plot-wise, Pecker basically follows the standard overnight sensation template of every rags-to-riches movie since the 1930's. But it isn't the story that makes this movie special. Waters is able to put the audience in Pecker's head, to see what he sees. We feel the happiness he feels when he's taking these pictures. In that sense, Pecker is similar to Tim Burton's Ed Wood. Both movies share protagonists who do what they do simply out of sheer love. And wisely, Waters doesn't turn the critics and gallery owners of the art world into total caricatures. Sure, he's making fun of them, but he still genuinely likes this subculture. For the final scene, Pecker hosts a huge party that brings together the art world, the working folks of Baltimore, gays, straights, old, young and everybody in between. It's one of the most joyful and optimistic scenes of inclusion I've ever seen on film. You want to crawl into the TV and dance on the tables along with them.

Presented in anamorphic widescreen and in their original aspect ratios, both Hairspray and Pecker look good on DVD. Hairspray is a little soft at times, but the colors (possibly the most important visual aspect of this movie) are generally vibrant and solid. Since it's a newer movie, Pecker ought to look better than its companion. But this was one of New Line's earlier discs and they have not remastered it for the new package. The picture quality suffers from some noticeable edge enhancement and occasional artifacting which, while not catastrophic, does occasionally distract. Both movies feature 2.0 stereo and 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks. The 5.1 remix on Hairspray comes to life with the film's great soundtrack of early 60's rock songs. Otherwise, it's fairly inert. The sound quality on Pecker is just fine, though there isn't a tremendous amount of difference between 5.1 and 2.0 here. The movie wasn't exactly meant to be a sonic whirlwind.

As for extras, Pecker comes out on top. John Waters is one of the great DVD commentators, and his track for Pecker is top-notch, pointing out Baltimore landmarks, going into detail about his own photography and discussing a hilariously surreal meeting at the MPAA, where Waters had to defend using Pecker as a title. The disc also includes a video interview with Chuck Shacochis, the photographer who took Pecker's pictures, misleadingly titled Pecker's Snapshot Gallery. You also get the trailer and the usual bios and filmographies for cast and crew.

Hairspray only provides the trailer and a commentary. Here, Waters is "joined" by Ricki Lake. Unfortunately, the two were recorded separately and the tracks were edited together. The editing isn't too bad, but it would have been great to get Lake and Waters together again.

As the inaugural double feature in The John Waters Collection, it was probably a wise decision for New Line to start with Waters' most accessible films. The extras raise some questions. For instance, why does Pecker have cast and crew bios while Hairspray, with an equally large and unusual cast, does not? That aside, this is a set that will appeal to both Waters' longtime fans as well as casual viewers who are curious about John Waters... but aren't quite ready to watch a 300-pound drag queen eat dog excrement.

Adam Jahnke

The Films of John Waters on DVD

The John Waters Collection, Volume One (Hairspray/Pecker)

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