If you think you know Divine, think again. At least, that was the thought swimming through my head as I discovered new information about the drag queen turned actor turned musician turned superstar.
As a high school movie fanatic eager to watch anything and everything, I thought I had found the ultimate lost artifact when I picked up a copy of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos. When I saw Divine’s Babs Johnson compete for the title of “the filthiest woman alive”, I was confused, disgusted, impressed, and laughing.
I wasn’t the only movie goer who felt this way. Divine developed a small following through Waters’ much earlier, rawer movies as well as his participation with the stage group The Cockettes. When Divine’s stomach-heaving performance in PInk Flamingos took the midnight madness circuit and then the world by storm, audiences didn’t know what to make of the actor. They were aware, however, that what Divine was doing was different, unique, and bold.
Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary is both a sincere love letter to the life and times of Divine and a bittersweet memoriam. I Am Divine uses methods that were made famous by The Kid Stays in the Picture and executes this approach to storytelling very well. Pictures spanning from Divine’s youth (when he was called by his birth name Harris Glenn Milstead) are accompanied with audio from an intimate interview recorded during the actor’s heyday.
These audible excerpts help lead the viewer on this path through Divine’s life while friends, family, and admirers comment on the actor’s successes and audacities.
The documentary shows the transition Divine made from being an intimidating, pre-punk drag queen to an admirable performance artist. Schwarz makes this evolution seem flawless over the span of 90 minutes, but movie goers get that sense of hard working initiative Divine had. It was a quality that was fuelled by how much fun Divine was having with his stardom and the celebrity title, plus the extravagancies that followed were the icing on the cake for the much bullied former middle schooler.
As someone who thought they had a clear idea of who Divine was, I was surprised to figure out new aspects about the actor. I Am Divine does a terrific job at providing a stable backstory through Glenn’s childhood as well as the influences that helped mould his character of Divine – including late-night drag competitions with fellow actor/friend David Lochary and John Waters’ satirical approach to Divine’s flaunting.
There are moments where it feels as if Schwarz is glazing over some possibly interesting stories, such as the ones that ensued in Divine’s love life. But, it could also be a place where there’s not enough information to sufficiently side track the documentary on. Considering how sensitive and personal Divine was off-screen, I imagine this is the case.
I Am Divine is exactly how a documentary about Divine’s life should be. Lots of glitz, lots of glamour, a lot of laughs, and some emotional surprises. Plus, a sprinkling of Waters’ sleazy Baltimore charm makes this doc less of a misfit and more of who Divine would’ve gone on to be – a soaring success.
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