This Sunday, the great John Waters brings his annual Christmas show to City Winery. An absolute Christmas fanatic, Waters also just so happens to be marking 10 years since the release of his curated compilation album A John Waters Christmas. While some were surprised at the time that the Baron of Bad Taste would be releasing a collection of holiday tunes, Waters has actually been very music-minded his entire career. To score your journey to hear him this weekend, we’ve put together this history of John Waters and the music of his life.
While a young John Waters would hate having his early films compared to Andy Warhol’s, often citing how his were very character- and plot-focused where Warhol’s were more interested in sacrificing the hallmarks of the medium to showcase his subjects, the easy parallel many would draw would be between Warhol’s team of regulars (dubbed his “Factory”) and Waters’s bold Baltimore brigade, known as the Dreamlanders. Where they did have much in common was their ironic use of pop music. Being that the world of underground film didn’t bother with properly securing the rights to various famous original compositions for other movies and the top hits of the time, Waters and Warhol both took the cue from American avant-garde film pioneer Kenneth Anger to use whatever music they wanted, often having the non-diegetic sounds become part of a joke or a send-up of what was happening onscreen. Waters’s first film, Mondo Trasho, was a largely silent affair that was carried by his choice of tunes, something that would be a licensing nightmare for anyone hoping to release today.
Waters’s use of pop and rock of the ’50s and ’60s became a staple of these early films, and whether ironic or a punchline, his good taste in tunes helped balance the bad taste on screen. Divine strutting around to Little Richard’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” in Pink Flamingos or playing the film’s infamous scene to the tune of Patti Page’s “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window” helped set the whimsical funhouse tone of what might otherwise have scanned as mean-spirited or grotesque.
Later, with Divine’s club act beginning to take off, Waters dabbled in songwriting. Among his finest hours is the theme to his 1974 film Female Trouble. Performed by Divine, the irresistible groove adds a classy smoothness to an often jagged and jarring film. While “We May Never Love Like This Again” from The Towering Inferno went on to win Best Original Song at the Oscars that year, you know in your heart of hearts which you would rather groove to.
Following this period, Waters began tapping other artists to make original music for his films. Tab Hunter and Debbie Harry’s title theme from 1981’s Polyester, the Patrick Williams-composed original musical numbers for Cry-Baby, and Moby’s original score for Cecil B. Demented all call back to the elements of film music Waters has a genuine love for, but deliver the subversive edge of a Waters-tinged undercurrent that so perfectly lets you know what you’re watching is destined to be a cult classic. Still, Waters proved an excellent crate-digger, choosing obscure and possibly otherwise forgotten cuts to add that much more flavor to films like 1988’s Hairspray and 1997’s Pecker, the latter of which he penned liner notes for, showing his sheer zeal for the music he was sharing with the world.
Two of Waters’s films, the aforementioned Hairspray and Cry-Baby, were turned into Broadway musicals. While Cry-Baby sadly only ran for a few months, Hairspray lasted seven years, winning eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and getting a film adaptation starring John Travolta in the role Divine originated. And the 2000s saw Waters treat fans to two hand-picked compilations of music, A John Waters Christmas and A Date With John Waters respectively, offering both some of the most potent novelty records and shockingly sincere oddities a Baltimore record store would have to offer.
While there are plenty of directors who’ve made their use of sound a signature over the years, Waters’s musical elements have always seemed different. Perhaps it’s the esoteric nature of underground film and the weirdo family-reunion aspect of their screenings, but to watch a John Waters project is to have him share a part of his record collection with you. For a man wholly unafraid to shock your eyeballs, he’s treated his viewers’ ears rather intimately. The fans have noticed, spawning a network of Waters devotees scouring the far reaches of music on the Web trying to find every bizarre 45 credited. Chances are, if you’re selling a dusted-off copy of your “Teddy Bears on Parade” by the Peter Pan Players on eBay, it’s going to a Waters devotee attempting to complete their homemade unabridged A Dirty Shame soundtrack. That’s why, while a John Waters film may leave a bad taste in your mouth, it will still leave a song in your heart.
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