CRY BABY, 1990
Cast: Johnny Depp, Amy Locane, Susan Tyrrell, Polly Bergen, Iggy Pop, Ricki Lake, Traci Lords, Kim Webb, Troy Donahue
In a 1950s suburban town, square Allison has fallen for local tough Wade ‘Cry-Baby’ Walker, much to the disgust of Allison’s boyfriend, Baldwin. Reminiscent of Romeo & Juliet, the pair must endure the gangs warring to end up together in perfect greaser harmony.
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There are actors that like to gloss over their early work, and why shouldn’t they? Robert Downey Jr. isn’t exactly begging you to rediscover Tuff Turf. There are however, people who definitely should be drawing more attention to their older films. Fans of Johnny Depp should be ecstatic to discover this pop wonder of a film. A cult classic made in the same year as Scissorhands it was directed by American cinema’s enfant terrible, John Waters; a director who gained notoriety from films featuring transvestites eating faeces- truly one of the most disgusting claims to fame around. Luckily for squeamish audiences, all of his previous filth was removed for this production and this is probably about as sensible as John Waters gets.
From Trash cinema, to the world of camp comedy Waters was riding on a crest of popularity on the back of, the now even more popular, 1988 film Hairspray. Similar to Pedro Almodóvar, Waters made features which had a certain punk aesthetic to them and revelled in being purposefully camp and outrageous- Cry Baby is the perfect example of this playfulness at work. In his early steps towards the mainstream he created something that aped 50s teen film stereotypes, such as make out parties, playing chicken and overbearing (or just plain weird) parenting, with such affection that it doesn’t even seem to be parodying them; it seems like it’s more just getting in on the fun.
Allison (Amy Locane) is the good girl at school; singing at local recitals, home before curfew and with the perfect square boyfriend (Stephen Mailer’s Baldwin). She has never questioned this lifestyle before single-tear shedding rebel Wade ‘Cry Baby’ Walker (Depp) shows up and turns her world upside down. The caricatures here are broad, and as violent onscreen gangs the greasers and the squares are hilarious. While this may be a story set in the mould of Rebel without a Cause, teens struggling against societal constraints, the ‘violent’ gangs have more in common with the all-singing, all-dancing cast of West Side Story. Depp particularly, in an exceptional comic performance, manages to make Walker one of the most non-threatening teens ever portrayed on the big screen.
The two gangs end up fighting over Allison after Cry Baby disrupts a recital put on by Allison’s mother. The police arrests that follow are extremely weighted against the leather gang and they imprison Walker. This gives Waters the chance to go to town on films such as Jailhouse Rock and he gets a lot of the biggest laughs out the incarcerated cast (also there is a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Willem Dafoe as a prison guard). It’s up to Allison to follow her heart and get Cry Baby out of prison and reunite the gang, but there’s always the problem of Baldwin and whether she can resist the urge of ‘the squares’.
The main inspiration for this, and Hairspray, comes from a childhood spent in Baltimore in the Fifties, where John Waters idolised the kids who were stepping out in leather and going against the grain. His own sense of rebellion shows through strongly in his films, and while he was past the days of intentionally shocking his audience with outlandish stunts, he surrounded himself with the most outrageous casts possible. These included Traci Lords and punk wild man Iggy Pop who, quite predictably, is introduced half naked. While the mains, Depp and Locane, provide perfectly naive and over-the-top comedy performances, for the rest of the cast the acting isn’t the main thing, as it never is in a John Waters production; it’s more about the style.
Like Hairspray the thing that ties Cry Baby together is the music. With all cast renditions of original songs like King Cry Baby and the Elvis inspired Doing Time for Being Young, to the exceptional usage of original Fifties music in the background. Cry Baby rocks along with barely a moment going by without some variety of song slipping in, this may well be why the Broadway adaptation has become such a big hit.
A distinct love for everything Fifties flows throughout the film; the amalgamation of the clothes, music and vehicles makes the film a postcard from that era. In that respect Cry Baby stands alongside American Graffiti. But, whereas Lucas’ used the era to focus on the trials of outgrowing your town and leaving adolescence behind, being adolescent here is the order of the day. The film is a lot less concerned with serious topics, and even though Waters highlighted he could take on the heavier subjects while remaining light hearted- Hairspray’s underlying themes of racial segregation- this is by far Waters most enjoyable work and also, arguably, one of Johnny Depp’s.