"I Am Divine" is a welcome reminder that Baltimore's favorite-son drag queen did more than eat dog poop at the end of "Pink Flamingos." Much more.
He was, in fact, a genuine force of nature, an irrepressible and undefinable spirit who wanted two things: to be loved, and to be famous. To that end, he adopted the almost-literally larger-than-life personality of a 300-pound drag queen and found success in film, on stage and in concert. His singular accomplishments — there almost certainly will never be another Divine — emerge as a testament as much to his drive as his talent, both of which are paid their due by filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz.
Raised Harris Glenn Milstead in Towson and Lutherville, Divine grew up an overweight, effeminate object of derision; it isn't hard to see where that craving for affection came from. And certainly, by the time he died suddenly in 1988 of a massive heart attack, less than a month after the premiere of his final and most successful film, "Hairspray," and on the day he was to begin filming a supporting role on TV's "Married With Children" — his admirers were legion.
The real joy of "I Am Divine" is spending time with his true friends, the famed Dreamlanders who, with director John Waters as their leader and Divine as his muse, merrily subverted American movie culture. Waters, of course, gets considerable screen time, and he speaks with wit and emotion about his good friend. But just as welcome are comments from Pat Moran, Vince Peranio, Mink Stole and the other surviving Dreamlanders, whose testimonies suggest how lucky Divine was to fall in with them, and vice versa.
Happily, "I Am Divine" spends equal time with Glenn Milstead, the person, and Divine, the persona. True, they were two sides of the same coin, but there was a difference — one that some of Divine's fans didn't always realize.
But the surprise star here is Frances Milstead, the mother who essentially kicks Glenn out of the house after he comes clean about who he is, then years later has an emotional reunion with him and becomes proud of her famous son.
Schwarz peppers the documentary with some amazing archival footage; we see Divine onstage in San Francisco and New York (where he became a major cult star and big-time draw), as well as snippets of Waters' earliest films (including the rarely seen "Eat Your Makeup," with Divine as Jackie Kennedy, and "The Diane Linkletter Story"). We even get to see Divine, during his days as a disco diva, performing on the British TV show "Top of the Pops," following which he was banned — and saw his record sales climb.
If anything, Schwarz piles on the accolades and tributes with a little too much gusto. Even at the height of his career, plenty of people weren't exactly members of the Divine fan club. "I Am Divine" suggests a world where, once he put on the outrageous make-up and perfected the outrageous persona, Divine was instantly and unanimously accepted. It wasn't that easy, but "I am Divine" rarely goes there.
Then again, this is a movie that's really about how much fun Glenn Milstead had being Divine, and how he — perhaps unexpectedly — found so many fans willing to go along for the ride. That's an American success story worth celebrating.
'I Am Divine'
Star rating: 3.5 stars
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 90 minutesCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun