There is a tremendous amount of information available about John Waters. Books, documentaries and Water's own live speaking events offer the chance to appreciate his sense of humor and wild career. While Divine is always a factor in explorations of Waters there has never before been a film that focused exclusively on telling Divine's story. With its world premier at SXSW, I am Divine is now the one true record on Divine.
I have consumed more than my fair share of John Waters media but I never felt that I had a clear picture of Divine's career. I am Divine brings his life into sharp focus. The film warmly and thoroughly follows Divine from the inception of his character through his breakthroughs as a cult movie figure, a live theater star, a disco singer and finally as a mainstream breakout with the release of Hairspray.
The documentary includes a tremendous amount of rarely seen and never before seen archival footage and photos. Interviews with Waters, Divine's high school girlfriend, Mink Stole, Tab Hunter, Divine's mother, Ricki Lake and countless others cast Divine in a human context. Achieving this in the face of Divine's force of nature on screen presence is a huge accomplishment. Almost everyone who is interviewed for the film does a brief impression of Divine when sharing a conversation. Listen for Rikki Lake's recollection of a conversation she had with Divine on the set of Hairspray. It's by far the best impression in the film.
A number of sometimes subtle but always well executed motion graphics built from photos of Divine punch up key point and segway from one topic to another. These moments are often overlaid with cleverly selected soundbites that drew big laughs from the audience.
Several minutes are spent on Edith Massey. It's a fun sidebar that tells the story of how she came to be part of Waters' gang and touches on the interplay between her and Divine on the set of Pink Flamingos.
I am Divine is top notch as far as production is concerned. Director Jeffrey Schwarz and his talented team have crafted a great film and an even greater tribute. The material is briskly paced and maintains a formidable momentum through the entire runtime. The full stop of this momentum upon Divine's sudden death drives home the tragedy of losing a talented person at the height of their career. The success of Hairspray had helped Divine land a supporting part as Peggy Bundy's uncle on Married With Children. He died the night before the episode was to be taped.
Divine had long attempted to break into mainstream role. This opportunity could have easily catapulted him into television stardom and made Divine a household name. During the Q+A I asked Schwarz if any materials from this episode survived. Unfortunately it seems that no publicity or wardrobe continutity stills had been shot in advance and that no copies of thescript remain.
The closing credits include literally thousands of names of individuals who donated money for the production of the film. It feels extremely appropriate that the fans who were touched most by Divine participated in producing this excellent tribute to his memory. I am Divine is great celebration of Divine's career and his lasting impact.