Directed by: Jeffrey Schwarz
Featuring: Divine, John Waters, Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Holly Woodlawn, Tab Hunter
When I was very little, I remember my mom watching the original Hairspray on VHS and I was fascinated by one particular character. She was just so loud and over-the-top, and at the end of the film she's so much larger than life. It was several years later before I discovered that the sequined, brash woman wasn't a biological woman at all, and that was my introduction to Harris Glenn "Divine" Milstead (and consequently, I've been infatuated with drag culture for as long as I can remember). So when I heard about the upcoming documentary I Am Divine, touting itself as the definitive biopic of the ultimate diva, I knew that it was a must-see on my SXSW 2013 list.
The documentary, directed by Jeff Schwarz (who also made the fantastic William Castle doc Spine Tingler! among many other prestigious works), truly does start at the beginning with archival footage of the young, overweight little Glenn and his childhood in Baltimore. He had a surprisingly straight-laced childhood and attended Sunday school regularly. While he showed some feminine traits, like an interest in hairstyling, he stayed fairly low-key and moderate. At 17, however, he befriended his boundary-pushing neighbor John Waters, and the two went on to create an unstoppable whirlwind of controversial films that ranged from outlandish and offensive to intriguing.
Despite the insanity of some of the projects he and John created together, there was something truly endearing about Glenn, who by then had reinvented himself as the femme fatale Divine and was soon performing with the San Francisco drag troupe The Cockettes. Divine took on a personality that was enormous to say the least, and Glenn would settle for nothing less. Divine endeared herself to countless fans and it took only a few years for her to skyrocket from the relative obscurity of shocking cult films to the notoriety of an international figurehead of decadence, flamboyance and unapologetic glamour.
Through a long list of projects, ranging from music and live performances to theater and film, Divine established herself as a staple in entertainment. I Am Divine is rife with fantastic footage and never-before-seen interview clips with nearly everyone involved in Divine's life, from her late mother and icons like Tab Hunter and Jayne Mansfield to the staples of her circle like Divine's managers, actress Ricki Lake and, of course, John Waters himself. These candid confessionals with Divine's friends, family and colleagues lend a completely different perspective to the profane actress we all know and love from Pink Flamingos. We are treated instead to loving anecdotes about a generous, outgoing, wonderful person who believed in living life to the fullest and honing her craft as an entertainer.
I Am Divine follows its subject through the end of her gregarious life and paints an affectionate eulogy worthy of the fabulous drag star. Any fan of Divine will appreciate this touching tribute to her life and will fall in love all over again with the (wo)man, the myth and the legend. Indeed, she was Divine.