I Am Divine
- Emma Simmonds
- 16 July 2014
Affectionate documentary offers a fresh perspective on the outrageous drag star
Divine – who died in 1988 aged just 42 – was a whole lot of woman onscreen and a whole lot of man off it. He might not have lived long but he burned with a fierce, hypnotising flame.
Jeffrey Schwarz's affectionate documentary presents the man they called Divine through the recollections of those that loved him. Billed as 'The true story of the most beautiful woman in the world,' I Am Divine gives us Harris Glenn Milstead – 'cinematic terrorist', singer, muse of filmmaker John Waters and People magazine's 'Drag Queen of the Century'.
It traces Milstead's journey from bullied Baltimore teen to the global sensation who scandalised Britain in 1984 when he shook his thang on Top of the Pops, and takes in LSD trips, famous friends and exuberant eating binges (one contributor recalls him pulling a chair up to the fridge).
Although this colossal character took the concept of being game to a whole different level in Pink Flamingos, Schwarz's film shows a different side to Divine: how he revealed his homosexuality and drug-taking to his flabbergasted parents in an impetuous flourish (leading to a long falling out); and how he felt trapped playing women and craved critical acclaim, which finally came his way at the end of his life with the release of Hairspray.
Seasoned documentarian Schwarz has a soft spot for the kitsch (he also directed Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story) but I Am Divine doesn't quite match the pep and visual pizzazz of its subject. However Schwarz has assembled a hugely impressive collection of talking heads (include Waters, Ricki Lake and Divine's mum) who provide quote after marvellous quote.
I Am Divine may not be the blowsy riot you'd expect given Divine's salty screen persona but it tells his story with wit, insight and compassion, revealing a rather sweet and sensitive man underneath that sparkling shell.
Limited release from Fri 18 Jul.