Original release: April 6th, 1990
Running time: 85 minutes
Writer and director: John Waters
Producer: Rachel Talalay
Cast: Johnny Depp, Amy Locane, Polly Bergen, Iggy Pop, Ricki Lake, Traci Lords
I’ve always found there to be something alluring about American films either from or set in the 1950′s. Whether it’s the rockabilly sound or the cool look of the cars and clothes – and John Waters’ Cry Baby is no exception.
His touch of dark and nervous humour that we’ve come to know from films such as Pink Flamingos (1972) and Hairspray (1988) is present here as he weaves together a story about the struggle for freedom of sexual expression in a repressive community. With a bizarre cast of characters and inspired casting we get to see Iggy Pop playing father to Johnny Depp’s rebellious Wade “Cry Baby” Walker and Rikki Lake as his teenage sister, Pepper Walker, knocked up for the nth time.
Together with their gang, which includes Mona “Hatchet Face” Malnorowski (Kim McGuire), Wanda Woodward (Traci Lords), and Milton Hackett (Darren E. Burrows), they’re “drapes” and they don’t mix with “squares” under any circumstances.
That’s until Allison Vernon-Williams (Amy Locane) comes along, she’s what we can call “one hot square” and Cry Baby, in no time, is itching beneath his denim to get into her groove. As Allison takes to hanging out with the gang, her square pals aren’t too pleased, neither is her grandmother (Polly Bergen) or Lenora Frigid (Kim Webb), a girl who’s obsessed with Cry Baby.
When a night of crooning erupts into a riot, the lovebirds are separated. Cry Baby is sent to jail where he ends up getting a tattoo of a single teardrop on his face;
With an air of parody towards films like Grease (1978), there’s also a nod to Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Jailhouse Rock (1957) but Cry Baby manages to hold its own. This is partly down to Depp’s electric performance where he vigorously channels Elvis Presley during the film’s numerous musical – numbers complete with the lip curl and swivelling hips. Songs like “Teardrops Are Falling“, “Please, Mr. Jailer” and “High School Hellcats” are definite highpoints in the film and as the story works its way to through the finale you can’t help but tap your toes at the very least.
Yet Cry Baby also has something meaningful to say. The Drapes aren’t so much marginalised by the community for their delinquency, but more for their sexuality and class.
As members of the Square community gradually cross over to the other side, they begin to have a much better time with their lives. This is first noticeable when Allison starts to sing with them; after swapping her conservative attire for a more risqué outfit, her voice changes from the squeaky high pitched tone to a huskier and sexually charged one. The songs she was singing before were the generic and meaningless one they’d heard on Hit Parade, but with the Drapes she can express even sexual feelings.
Similarly, we see Allison’s grandmother joining the Drapes and thus freeing herself from her repressive confines. She’s seen pinning on a skull-and-crossbones medallion and pursuing the Judge who starts to dance to “dirty” rock ‘n’ roll. Both seem to be enjoying themselves a lot more than they were before.
The repression and liberation represented in Cry Baby is directly connected to each group’s inclination toward a particular type of fashion and music but it’s done in such a way that it feels like we’ve seen it before, for example with Grease where there’s a clash between two cultures. However, the T-Birds were a high school movement comprised of teenage guys whereas the Drapes are a community onto themselves who really are looked down on because of the way they choose to lives their lives.
Even without these issues Waters touches on with Cry Baby, I would still find it an enjoyable film. It’s got some entertaining performances, and despite not being quite up there (or down there) with Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, as well as the obvious lip-synching, it’s all done with good dirty fun, just the way it should be in a John Waters film.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .