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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Johnny Depp and John Waters pay loving homage to ’50s teen exploitation

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Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Midnight Special pays inspired tribute to the work of both Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. In its honor, we’re recommending excellent homages to other films and filmmakers.


Cry-Baby (1990)

For his follow-up to Hairspray, John Waters emulated ’50s teen exploitation films with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek. Rebel Without A Cause meets Romeo And Juliet in Cry-Baby, a musical comedy that adores its period setting even as it upends its chosen genre’s conventions. Forbidden romance blossoms between blonde “square” Allison (Amy Locane) and greaser “drape” Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp), whose at-first-sight amour meets resistance both from Allison’s doo-wopping preppie boyfriend Baldwin (Stephen Mailer) and, at least initially, her high-society grandmother Mrs. Vernon-Williams (Polly Bergen). Waters skews the formulaic set-up so that it’s juvenile delinquent Cry-Baby—supported by his misfit gang, including ugly “Hatchet-Face” (Kim McGuire), sultry Wanda (Traci Lords), pregnant sister Pepper (Ricki Lake), grandmother Ramona (Susan Tyrrell), and grandfather Belvedere (Iggy Pop)—who proves the sympathetic antihero, a hunky crooner in an Elvis-James Dean mold. His lack of inhibition marks him as a free soul far more virtuous than Baldwin and his discriminatory creep comrades.

It’s no surprise that the gleefully disreputable Waters configures Cry-Baby as a celebration of non-conformity, but what gives the Baltimore-set film its energy is its embrace of the era’s teen (and cinematic) style and attitude—the flowing skirts, leather jackets, manicured pompadours, striped prison uniforms, and flaming-decal hot rods and motorcycles. Waters showers love on the ’50s even as he exposes its true, intolerant character, which becomes manifest as Cry-Baby and Allison’s love is threatened during a brawl at a nighttime redneck dance, a courtroom trial, and a finale involving a perilous game of chicken. With Waters staging his action as flamboyant musical showcases, Cry-Baby proves an impudent homage, replete with stunt casting and a hair-flipping, hip-shaking lead performance by Depp that amusingly sends up his own reputation, circa 1990, as a teen pin-up idol.

Availability: Cry-Baby is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.