Continuing my interest in cult movie documentaries, following the likes of Midnight Movies, Electric Boogaloo, Not Quite Hollywood and Jodorowsky’s Dune, I delved into Jeffrey Schwarz’s film about the ‘muse of John Waters’, Divine, aka Harris Glenn Milstead.
While my awareness of Divine was brief she was certainly a fascinating presence, known to me mostly for the early extreme films of John Waters but later finding a kind of mainstream-cult notoriety in Water’s Hairspray and a suitably surreal looking pop career.
I Am Divine then charts his/her life and career in some detail, not pulling too many punches but clearly coming from an affectionate viewpoint.
While I get the feeling this probably glosses over quite a lot of things, it does mean that many of Divine’s friends and colleagues are present as talking heads which adds a definite authenticity to the story.
Unsurprisingly Waters is a highlight among these whether in archive footage or interviews recorded for the film and it’s clear that the two shared a strange connection which gives much credence to the ‘muse’ notion.
That said there are a few moments where Waters, and others, come dangerously close to appearing to lead the rather naive and enthusiastic young Milstead into quite such a surreal position, particularly when it is revealed that Divine’s name and look were constructed by Waters and his crew of ‘Dreamlanders’, though for the most part it feels that Divine was fairly complicit in this too.
Generally the production of I Am Divine is fairly standard but given the less than standard story it tells this doesn’t really matter as the straight forward interviews reveal an honesty that is essential while the archive footage of Divine both in and out of character helps bring the stories to life.
Away from the Waters link particularly interesting are stories from Holly Woodlawn about Divine’s meeting with Andy Warhol, tales from the time Divine toured as a disco pop performer, including an appearance on Top Of The Pops where British tabloids typically declared the appearance as ‘worse than Boy George’.
As with the best of these kind of films it has encouraged me to look further into Waters’ and Divine’s films and gives those I have seen a somewhat new aspect based around the difference between Divine’s on and offstage demeanour.
While all of this is fascinating the thing that really makes I Am Divine something different from many similar profile documentaries is the family and personal story that is threaded through.
This is made all the stronger thanks to the participation of Divine’s own mother.
While this side of the story has its ups and downs it overall is one with as happy an ending as it can have given Divine’s ultimate fate.
In the end I Am Divine is a fascinating, surprisingly touching, film with a story that, while ultimately tragic in many ways, never fails to be uplifting and delivers much of the same message of pride espoused by much of the LGBT+ plus movement and, appropriately enough, the message of The Rocky Horror Show could easily be applied as a message to take from Divine’s life… ‘Don’t dream it, be it!’