Trashy, kitsch movie making has never been so aspirational in the hands of anyone other than John Waters. Ahead of an appearance in Liverpool for Homotopia, Del Pike digs into the back catalogue of the Prince Of Puke, unearthing some bubblegum pop gems that have lit up his filmmaking career.
JOHN WATERS, the most gleefully sleazy director in exploitation cinema, is back in town, making his only UK appearance at this year’s Homotopia festival with his This Filthy World show. Last time he brought his show to the Liverpool festival in 2013 was a visit to remember, with a bonus appearance at LJMU presenting his favourite Burton/Taylor flick, Boom!
With most of Waters’ own heroes packed off to the big grindhouse in the sky, Waters is one of the few true exploitation figureheads still with us, and for that alone he is a treasure. Waters’ last movie, A Dirty Shame, was released some 14 years ago, and other than appearances in other folk’s TV and movies, he has kept a relatively low profile. Appearing at a recent Devo gig, however, he introduced the band and added a diatribe against Trump, calling him a “feckless prick” and a “shithole of a President”. Thankfully, the wonderful spirit of Waters endures.
Waters’ appearance at a Devo gig is no great surprise: he may well be the coolest 72-year-old on the planet. Music is always prominent in his movies – part of the excitement of these films is his hilarious juxtaposition of classic bubblegum/trash pop against shocking and outlandish imagery. How could anyone who’s ever seen Pink Flamingos (1972) hear The Trashmen’s Surfin’ Bird without unearthing the mental image of a singing anus?
Waters’ affiliation with musical royalty continued with his 2017 release on Jack White’s label, Third Man: a 7” single entitled Make Trouble. The single found Waters reciting from his book, also entitled Make Trouble. The book itself is a transcription of a full-length speech that Waters delivered to Rhode Island School Of Design, an inspirational anti-establishment rant that immediately went viral.
What better time to look back on John Waters’ relationship with music in film? His style of movie making may have shifted throughout his career, but his love of great music and his ability to match it to his images has remained intact.
Listen to our a John Waters soundtrack, featuring classics from all his films
A brace of short, garishly titled, monochrome underground movies kicked off Waters’ career in the 60s. This was around the same time that Kenneth Anger was shocking his audiences with Scorpio Rising (1964) – this homoerotic biker movie, drenched in Technicolor, featured a found soundtrack of jukebox classics from Ray Charles, Elvis, Bobby Vinton, The Crystals and The Surfaris. Waters’ films were similar, with Mondo Trasho (1969) and Multiple Maniacs (1970) making full use of bubblegum pop hits to deliver virtually dialogue-free narratives. Whereas Anger used music to create a menacing contrast with his images, Waters used the music for purely campy and hilarious effect.
The opening sequence of Mondo Trasho sees a masked butcher beheading live chickens in the woods to the sound of Link Wray’s ominous Jack The Ripper. In this, Waters instantly created a trope that would follow him on and off for years: extreme kitsch via the fantastic marriage of music and image.
“Well, music has been a constant. Yes. Rock ’n’ roll was huge!” Waters told New Zealand webzine Stuff back in 2011. “My first hero was Elvis Presley, when I saw him I just wanted to be him. I wanted to swap! I wanted to wiggle my hips like that. And it was the same with Little Richard. You have to remember that the 1950s are remembered fondly now because of the music. But the 1950s were horrible!”
Waters took great influence from Frank Tashlin’s 1956 comedy, The Girl Can’t Help It, particularly the iconic scene that sees Jayne Mansfield knocking them dead as she parades down the street to Little Richard’s title song. Waters’ own muse was the wonderfully overweight and maddeningly beautiful Divine, the ludicrous creation of childhood friend Glenn Milstead. Divine became Waters’ own Mansfield. Over and over again, he would recreate the scene with Divine in skin-tight cocktail dresses, high heel slippers and extreme make-up, prowling the streets of their hometown Baltimore: in Multiple Maniacs, Lady Divine parades to Sil Austin’s instrumental Wildwood before being attacked by glue sniffers; in Pink Flamingos (1972), Babs Johnson flaunts it to The Girl Can’t Help It with a slice of raw steak in her knickers; Female Trouble’s version totally steals it as Dawn Davenport walks by to Nervous Norvus’ Dig and an onlooker’s eye casually drops from its socket (yes, it’s real).
Waters’ love of tracks that feature blaring, distorted horns became his stock in trade throughout those early days and always act as a siren, forewarning a gross-out scene. While Mondo Trasho still awaits a formal release, which is unlikely due to the hundred-plus songs used without permission, Pink Flamingos surely holds the title of most insane usage of songs against shocking images. The singing bumhole takes some beating, but Patti Page’s How Much Is That Doggy In The Window playing over Divine’s dog-egg feasting comes close.
As Waters broke free from purely grindhouse audiences following the Divine-free Desperate Living, changes were stirring. Some of his original ensemble – known as the Dreamlanders after his production company Dreamland Productions – fled the nest and the overweight, grotesque Baltimore characters were slowly replaced with accepted, recognisable actors. Waters explained this move as “spreading his germs to suburbia”. Sadly, his soundtracks suffered in the transition.
Debbie Harry and Chris Stein provided the soundtrack for Polyester (1981), alongside Michael Kamen. However effective, it was a polished affair compared to the favourable blaring retro tracks of old. The song, The Best Thing, that plays over Divine and Hunter’s frolicking, has a melodramatic vocal from Bill Murray, who Waters allegedly hated at the time for being “too mass audience”.
Polyester saw the return of Divine as Francine Fishpaw, placed opposite love interest, the recently departed Tab Hunter. Hunter, a 50s heartthrob with a batch of hit singles and appearances in romantic comedies, was a rebel with a string of secret gay relationships including a partnership with Anthony (Psycho) Perkins. Perfect quarry for Waters. Also on board was Lords Of The New Church frontman, Stiv Bators, as Bo-Bo the juvenile delinquent. Waters’ films would continue to boast appearances from cult music figures including Iggy Pop, Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry and Chris Isaak. 90s grungers L7 appear in 1994’s Serial Mom as Camel Lips, with matching tight trousers.
Waters’ appreciation of unusual music can be detected beyond his own soundtracking. His compilation albums, A John Waters Christmas and A Date With John Waters bring together the brilliant and the bizarre. Christmas gems including Santa Claus Is A Black Man by Akim, and Rudolph And The Gang’s Here Comes Fatty Claus (“Here comes Santa with a sack of shit!”) have become annual favourites in this writer’s house. His 2010 book, Role Models – a collection of tributes to his own personal roll call of heroes – opens with Me And Johnny, a surprisingly enthusiastic love letter to Johnny Mathis.
In a 2007 interview with The New York Times, Waters went into a bit more detail on the depth to which he felt music was a part of his art. “When I turn in a script, I almost always turn in a complete soundtrack with it. The music is another character in the movies. I use the songs like a punchline or a costume.”
Waters found mainstream appreciation with his double whammy as the 80s reached an end – Divine’s swansong, Hairspray (1988) and the film that propelled Johnny Depp to stardom, Cry-Baby (1990). Both films were driven by their extraordinary soundtracks, reminiscent of Waters’ early movies. Cry-Baby remains Waters’ only actual musical. The Cramps had originally written and recorded songs for the soundtrack, including the title track. However, these were never used, only turning up as B-sides on their All Women Are Bad single under the name Cry-Baby Suite. One track, High School Hellcats, appears in the film in title alone, re-written by Dave Alvin and performed by rockabilly performer James Intveld. Cry-Baby made it to Broadway status and failed miserably, unlike Hairspray, which has been an enormous stage hit internationally and was remade for the cinema, with John Travolta replacing Divine in 2007 with the approval and endorsement of John Waters. He appears briefly in the remake as a flasher.
Following the routine, Stewart Copeland scored Pecker (1998), while Cecil B. Demented (2000) pays homage to Waters’ favourite directors in a tale of guerrilla filmmaking gone berserk. Basil Poledouris returns to scoring duties, having previously helmed Serial Mom, and the result is overwhelming and as far away from a Waters soundtrack as you can imagine. The added factor of John Waters co-writing the rap tracks Bankable Bitch and No Budget with DJ Class is perhaps the least expected element of any of his soundtracks.
If A Dirty Shame (2004) turns out to be the final film in the director’s canon, it does so much more than satisfy. The soundtrack is worth the ticket price alone.
The film tells the tale of Sylvia Stickles (Tracey Ullman), a prudish housewife living in a Baltimore suburb teeming with perverts. Following a bonk on the head, Sylvia succumbs to Ray Ray (Johnny Knoxville) and enters a hilarious world of sexual misadventure. It’s an absolute return to form, and has a soundtrack packed with sauciness to match the onscreen shenanigans. Titles such as Tony’s Got Hot Nuts, Eager Beaver Baby, Boobs A Lot and Hump A Baby are priceless. Old classics like Billy Lee Riley’s Red Hot bring Waters’ career full cycle with its blaring horns and joyful, sleazy nostalgia. The scene where Sylvia does The Hokey Pokey in an old folks’ home, squatting to pick up a water bottle (hands free), is one of Waters’ last great soundtrack gags – pure gold.
If Waters never makes another film, at the very least we have these gems to pore over. A great collection of movies with an equally breathtaking assemblage of tunes. Long live the Prince Of Puke.
John Waters: This Filthy World shows at the Philharmonic Hall on 10th November as part of Homotopia.