Film

'I Am Divine' Is a Fitting Tribute to a Screen Legend

(A)s a celebration of one of the most unique talents in the history of all mediums, this movie does (Divine) more than justice.


I Am Divine

Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Cast: Divine, John Waters, Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, Ricki Lake, Mary Vivian Pierce, Susan Lowe
Rated: R
Studio: Automat Pictures
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-10-25 (Limited release)
Website
Trailer

There was no greater star than Harris Glenn Milstead. He represented the perfect post-modern put-on, a clever combination of old school Hollywood glitter and new wave cultural cool. Granted, he was an outsider who never quite fit in around his Baltimore pals and it took an accidental friendship with future Prince of Puke John Waters to transform him into the definitive drag queen, but for anyone who saw his/her work, Divine was more than just a guy gussied up in outrageous make-up and too tight clothes. She was an instant icon, a true talent underappreciated in her time and sorely missed today. Had she lived, Divine would be front and center of our new temperament and tolerance, as always, a force to be reckoned with while mocking said stance with perverse glee. Luckily, those who never knew her or her amazing work have a chance to learn what we've all lost with the sensational documentary I Am Divine. It's a melancholy work of wonder.

Acting as both a biography and personal primer, this excellent overview from director Jeffrey Schwarz does a damn fine job of putting Milstead's intriguing life into context. Those who've memorized every page of Waters' magnum opus, Shock Value, will instantly recognize many of the stories here, but for the most part, this film isn't out to dish the dirt so much as service its sensational diva. It's been a quarter century since we last saw the oversized goddess, her untimely death at age 42 one of the saddest days in (outsider) movie history, so Schwarz knows that most people only known Divine from her various movie and TV appearance. This documentary, featuring many familiar faces talking about their time with the talented, troubled soul, is meant to provide some context to all the crazy rumors and sensationalized stories. And it does.

Before Pink Flamingos, before the surrealist stage shows and hopeless heartbreaks, there was Glenn. As his mother loves to point out, her son never quite fit in. We see the early years, when drag became a way for this alienated youth to express himself. It wasn't long before the future Divine was hanging out with Waters and the rest of the Dreamlanders (named after the director's homemade production company, Dreamland Studios), making arty little cinematic experiments inspired by Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger, and the Kuchar Brothers. Never believing it would amount to much, the living members of the renegade repertoire argue that, of all the people, Glenn/Divine was the most daring. She agreed to almost anything, from wearing deranged eye make-ups and skin tight gold lame go-go outfits to being "raped" by a plaster of Paris lobster.

But it was a last minute addition to the Pink Flamingos shoot that skyrocketed Divine to cult superstardom. Waters had wanted a talking point, a water cooler moment to give his movie about "the filthiest people alive" a pre-credits kicker to fuel fascination and fiscally necessary word of mouth. Ever the trooper, Divine agreed to eat actual dog shit, "live" on camera, thereby cementing her and the film's still strong reputation. From there, she and Waters worked tirelessly to take her beyond the whole Midnight Movie circuit. First there was the sensational stage show which drew on everything from Divine's identification in gay circles to the Manson Family murders, including an infamous moment (repeated for Waters' amazing masterpiece Female Trouble) where the 300 pound princess jumped on a trampoline while firing a gun and throwing fish at the crowd. This lead to work in legitimate theater, an attempt to break out of the cinematic underground, and a gradual (and glowing) acceptance among those in the mainstream.

If there is a dark side to all the high points in I Am Divine, it's learning how unhappy the star typically was. Constantly troubled by his weight and attempts to control same, there were also a series of unhappy relationships and career setbacks. As a homosexual, Divine was far from closeted, but she had the unfortunate luck to live in some of the most repressive times. The '60s and '70s were far less enlightened than our supposedly tolerance times today, but there was always a desire to perceiver, to prove that she was more than just a man in woman's clothing. Waters says it best when he states that Divine wasn't, in his mind, a drag queen. Instead, she was an actress who typically played a woman. Sadly, that was a tough concept for many in the industry to wrap their heads around, though Divine was making headway in that arena before she passed.

Those looking for insights beyond the obvious will marvel at much of the archival material Schwarz has unearthed. There's also a few jaw-droppers, including intimate photos of Divine and her various partners over the years. What the documentary makes clear is that, for everything the outside world had to offer, the fame and the pageantry, the job offers and the cool rebuffs, Harris Glenn Milstead was still a fragile and often unhappy person. Clearly, she was so ahead of her time that the future is still trying to catch up to her (are you listening, RuPaul et. al.?) but that didn't stop people from dismissing her as a novelty, an one note individual whose only real claim to fame was chewing on some pup's poop. It's a sentiment stridently attacked by those who knew and worked with her, including Ricki Lake, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Susan Lowe, and Mary Vivian Pierce.

Indeed, the biggest tragedy on display is how unfairly pigeonholed Divine really was. Anyone who saw her act, either in person (she had quite the music career abroad) or on the big screen, knew there was much more to her than a puff of hair, some severe eyeliner, and a revealing gown. There was a real artist at the center of her shtick, a creative compliment to Waters wacked genius and, together, they changed the face of outsider cinema forever. I Am Divine might not be the wicked warts and all some demand, and if you love her hilarious Highness (as I do), much of this will be rote. Still, as a celebration of one of the most unique talents in the history of all mediums, this movie does her more than justice. There will never be another Divine. 25 years later and no one has come close to filling her infamous cha-cha heels. This documentary shows you why.

8

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image