I Am Divine opens with footage of one of Harris Glenn Milstead's greatest triumphs as he walks down the red carpet the night director John Waters' now-classic film Hairspray premiered at the Senator Theatre. Tragically, he died of an enlarged heart three weeks after Hairspray debuted nationwide, in 1988.
Of course, we all know Milstead as Divine and the bulk of this fascinating documentary marks the transition from the kid everybody picked on at Towson High School to the larger-than-life diva, a transition that is paralleled by the social transformation that swept the country-and Baltimore-from the '50s into the countercultural '60s. As Waters puts it in the film, "That's what changed everybody-you smoked pot and you had irony all of a sudden." And he assures us that Divine smoked A LOT of pot. Waters, who boasted long hair in addition to his mustache at the time, learned that he could channel the anger that Divine still had toward all the kids who beat him up to elicit the outrageous performances in Pink Flamingos and other films.
There is, of course, a lot of sadness in this Divine transformation. At one point, Milstead's mother recounts how her son came out to the family, told them he smoked pot and took LSD, and she told him to just keep going, keep away from his family. He found a new family with Waters and his crew but was not limited to the auteur. A fascinating sequence details Divine's music career, creating something like glam/punk/disco/techno that would still be exciting and unique today. Waters recently told City Paper that Baltimore hasn't changed all that much and you can still see people like Divine on the street. I Am Divine proves he was wrong. We still have weird people, but we will never have another Divine.
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