Cry-Baby: The Director's Cut Review
There’s quite a distance between Hag in a Black Leather Jacket and Hairspray - and not just in years. Though both were John Waters collaborations with Divine – his first and last, in fact – the latter finally saw him accepted by both the mainstream and the MPAA (it gained a ‘PG’ rating). Admittedly this wasn’t a film in which the director turned his back entirely on his trashier impulses, but it did evince a cosier, more professional side to his persona. You might therefore expect its follow-up to be a reaction to this newfound success and see a return to the more salacious environs of Desperate Living or Female Trouble. Yet strangely enough Cry-Baby not only capitalised on the waves made by Hairspray, but also serves as a companion piece – once again Waters heads back to the past for a slice of teen nostalgia.
The redressing of the balance would come later with Pecker, Cecil B. Demented and A Dirty Shame, a trio of increasingly schlockier pictures which seemed more overtly Waters-esque, but back in 1990 – the year of Cry-Baby’s release – he was making a musical with his largest budget to date and studio backing. Indeed, the plotting even borrows from West Side Story: across the class divide we have the Squares and the Drapes, the have and have-nots, though the barriers come down when “common juvenile delinquent” Johnny Depp falls for Amy Locane, who’s “tired of being good”.
Yet West Side Story - and its Shakespearean source – are far too classy for Waters. Rather his film takes its energy and ethos from fifties’ sugar pop, Frank Tashlin’s Technicolor extravaganzas, Jack Arnold’s High School Confidential, those Elvis movies of little or no artistic merit, and the more spurious teen flicks put out by American International. For Cry-Baby is still resolutely a John Waters picture, albeit a nostalgic one; he pays homage to the films and music he loved in his youth and the characters who populated the fringes of his Baltimore upbringing. Looked at from this angle and Cry-Baby could be showing us those who would later give birth to the Pink Flamingos/Mondo Trasho/Eat Your Makeup crowd. After all, its cast list boasts everyone from Iggy Pop and Patty Hearts to Mink Stole and Traci Lords – hardly a plea for mainstream acceptance.
The reason why this works so well is that Waters is clearly in love with this long forgotten world and as such takes it all completely seriously. Of course, his reasons for being so enthused by Peyton Place, say, or some Mamie Van Doren vehicle may not be quite the ones intended by their respective filmmakers, but they are undoubtedly genuine. (In this respect Cry-Baby makes for an interesting comparison point to much of David Lynch’s oeuvre. He too uses jitterbug contests, tight sweaters and sulky bikers, though of course the differing mindset results in Twin Peaks, Mulholland Dr et al.) Moreover, this enthusiasm means that we need to share at least some of Waters’ love in order to fully enjoy Cry-Baby. Indeed, the level of homage results in a film constructed from pure teen melodrama and all the inherent flaws/improbabilities that go with it. Hence Willem Dafoe’s character being so one-note that he gets credited simply as ‘Hateful Guard’ (and is allowed to utter the terrific line: “God bless Roy Cohn”), Locane being little more than a piece of fluff, and Depp exuding so much charisma. It’s all incredibly simple, but then it’s supposed to be. Furthermore, such simplicity (and this is not intended as a criticism) only makes it fit the Waters’ model all the more. In fact, individual enjoyment is likely to come down to how you prefer the director’s pictures: with the shit eating, or without.
Finally released on DVD in the UK, Cry-Baby arrives in “Director’s Edition” form which adds seven minutes of additional footage. For the most part these amount simply to reinstated lines of dialogue here and there (including a third “fuck” which the MPAA wouldn’t allow Waters to get away with) though there is also a full-length jitterbug number. (For full discussion of the alterations listen to Waters commentary in which he points all of them out and notes the reasons for their initial excision.)
In terms of its presentation, this disc also offers a near definitive offering. The opening credits appear a touch too grainy, but from thereon in things improve to provide a spotless print of excellent clarity. Perhaps more important is the effervescent colour scheme and it should be noted that this comes in equally fine condition – the bright reds in particular never once pose a problem. As for the soundtrack, here we find a Dolby Surround offering which upgrades the film’s original stereo recording. However, this disc was director approved so it would be churlish to complain, plus it arrives in flawless condition. Both songs and dialogue come across equally well.
The extras also prove highly pleasurable. A Waters commentary is always worth the effort and the one here is no different. Hilarious from start to finish, the director fills us in on the childhood which inspired so much of the film, his odd choice of cast members and seemingly innumerable anecdotes (my particular favourite being the one in which Locane thought that Hearst was simply your average supporting cast member and told her that she was “the only normal one” on set). However, it’s also true that he tells us so much that the 47-minute documentary, ‘It Came From… Baltimore!!’, covers a lot of the same ground. That said, it does merit its inclusion given the contributions from so many of the cast and the crew though perhaps it could have been trimmed down to a more easily digestible length. Rounding off the package we also have a handful of deleted scenes, some of which have appeared on various television editions of the film. There’s no commentary for these pieces, though the documentary does conclude with a discussion of them and those which made their way into the director’s cut.
All extras, including commentary, also come with the same choice of subtitles as the film itself. (See sidebar for information.)