To be completely honest, I didn’t know much about Divine beyond her scandalous appearances in John Waters’ early, no-budget trashterpieces. I didn’t realize the utter depth of her cultural significance, her brief but magnificent turn as a pop star, or frankly how utterly fabulous she was – the ignorance of youth I suppose.
I Am Divine is a documentary absolutely in love with the ludicrous, larger-than-life character at its center. And so it should be, after all, there’s oh-so-much to love. Equal parts funny, informative and poignant, it stands as an excellent tribute to a quiet, unassuming man who was somehow able to morph into the world’s boldest and zaniest star the moment he stepped onstage.
Taking the traditional, chronological rags to riches format, I Am Divine chronicles the life of Harris Glenn Milstead from cradle to coffin, with all the hash and Hairspray in between. Milstead’s is a fascinating story – and a wholly unlikely one at that. Divine was a character in complete opposition to any and all mainstream values, joyously rubbing the conservative noses of 1960s America in layer upon layer of excessive filth. It’s pointed out that, even by the then standards of transvestism, Divine took things even further, spearheading a counter-counterculture for the hell of it.
It’s a quintessential pop-star story, packed with highs, lows and excess to burn, but what makes I Am Divine so unique is the sheer unlikelihood of its subject’s success. Surely Divine was too alternative, too risque, too goddamn filthy, to ever command such a massive following? Yet at the same time, her stardom seemed almost assured from the start. The numerous interviews (Including a good deal of time spent with the ever wonderful John Waters) spanning the film seem to all but universally paint the picture of a lovely and generous man, the kind of infectious personality you couldn’t help but like. Milstead’s is a story so outlandish and sprawling that I Am Divine never has a moment to let up, providing us with 90 minutes of pure, unadultered entertainment packed with anecdotes and buckets of flamboyance.
Yet behind that mask of belligerent fabulousness lay a timid and self-conscious man. While undoubtedly a celebration of Divine’s insanity, I Am Divine also tells the quieter story of the man who made himself the myth. Many of the insights into Milstead’s personal life are genuinely touching, including a tear-filled reconciliation with his parents that had this reviewer stifling a few manly coughs. There’s nothing to begrudge in Milstead’s success, he comes across as a nice, slightly bonkers guy who wanted to be accepted for who he was.
And that’s what I love about Divine most of all: She was unquestionably – if occasionally by accident – a character that championed individuality beyond all others, completely refusing to compromise to the status quo. It’s flat out inspirational to see such a timid and likeable man transform and take to the stage in the name of all things contrarian, flaunting his absurdity in the faces of those that would bring him down. Divine was a character initially invented to incite shock, but she swiftly became a cultural icon at the forefront of a social revolution, pushing for tolerance and acceptance across the decades in a gigantic and wholly insane whirlwind of bold comedic performances and heinously catchy disco tunes.
It’s this whirlwind at I Am Divine‘s center – this brazen and brilliant, larger than life character Milstead created – that imbues the film with its wholly indulgent and totally infectious sense of fun, but the finished product is a good deal more than just a celebration of one of the 20th century’s most ridiculous stars. Laughs are balanced with poignance, bold tales with dark struggles. It’s a film filled with excess, yet it never feels excessive, excellently balancing the bonkers stage persona and the shlubby, lovable man who created her.
A fascinating larger-than-life portrait of its larger-than-life subject, I Am Divine is a beguiling blend of poignancy, humor and glorious excess.