In the midst of today’s cinema, amongst the blockbuster origins stories of larger than life characters, director Jeffrey Schwarz hurtles out with an origins story quite unlike any other… The queen of the underground … Divine.
Schwarz’s film documentary starts with the humble beginnings of Divine as Harris ‘Glenn’ Milstead in Baltimore and follows his incredible transition into one of the biggest LGBT icons of all time.
Unless you are familiar with Schwarz’s work then you are in for a surprise. A slow start to the film mirrors the first decade of Glenn’s life, and as you sit staring at photographs and interview footage, watching a seemingly ordinary boy become increasingly different from his peers, you find yourself wondering just what it is you have let yourself in for.
The turning point in the documentary comes hand in hand with the turning point of Glenn’s career as – in a moment of pure bad taste – the friends re-enacts a certain First Lady scrambling over the back of a car whilst the world watches in shock as an American president is assassinated (you know the one). What follows is one profanity after another in the search for fame.
A big participant in the documentary is director and life time friend of Divine, John Waters. The two start out together within the group the Dreamlanders – filming small sketches that lead them to later film The Trash Trilogy, which includes one of Divine’s most infamous moments.
By this point you are glued to the screen, what started out as a series of pictures and interviews has drawn you into a state of disbelief as convention and consideration are thrown aside to make way for audacity and profanity.
As with any detailed look into a person’s life, it is not without a few heart strings being tugged. One of the sadder moments of the documentary is Glenn’s exile from his family due to his sexuality – and you will find yourself wondering just how much this abandonment turned into Divine, does the character come from the need to be famous or was she an angry reaction at the loss of those who should have loved Glenn no matter what?
The story of Divine moves ahead to bigger and better things. Before you know it she has become an attraction, filling out stage venues to see her perform with a variety of comedy, singing and acting all thrown together into a huge mess. As time goes on she steps into the music industry, only adding to the already growing legend of Divine. Schwarz plays a snippet of Divine on stage singing You think you’re a man, an alluring sound, reminiscent of the ‘what if’ scenario where Pete Burns and Joan Jett have a lovechild. Divine even goes on tour, which receives generally positive reception across Europe, apart from in Britain. Cue the uncomfortable shifting in the seats of the British viewers.
Meanwhile, back in Baltimore, Divine’s mother sees a picture of a drag queen that looks a bit like her son Glenn and steadily realises the mistake they made when they sent him packing. In a another tear jerking scene of raw emotion she describes how she managed to get back in contact with her son, after years and years apart. The family reunites – there’s even a nice Christmas family portrait- and all is well in the world.
Having gained acceptance and acknowledgement from her family, Divine steps out of her six inch heels and into some conventional shoes, taking on the role of Edna Turnblad in Waters’ musical Hairspray. Hairspray shows an unrecognisable side to Divine. Gone is the ferocity, the glamour and the sass. In its place stands a man dressed as a whole different kind’o woman!
Sadly this was to be Divine’s last film role as she succumbs to heart problems and is found dead on March 7th 1988, leaving behind a cult following to rival that of Rocky Horror.
An absolute must watch if you are into anything even slightly out of the ordinary. Prepare to be shocked and appalled as you watch Divine strut through a life time of audacious, filthy glamour.