A great way to note the worthiness of a documentary is to measure the need to find out more about the subject matter being portrayed. Of course it can be misleading also as a great subject is a great subject regardless of the technical skill of the documentary filmmaker. A great film occurs is when both subject and form are in perfect harmony. In terms of I Am Divine, the documentary about the late drag superstar, performer and actor Divine, it was a subject of which this reviewer had only passing knowledge. There was a misty remembrance of seeing Pink Flamingos when at an age where it might be seen to be inappropriate (14 or so). By the end of watchingI Am Divine, there was a serious, almost physical need to see all the films that director John Waters made with Divine. The various clips shown in the film brimmed with life and anarchy. This reviewer is just of an age now to appreciate them in all their glory. But the question still has to be asked; is this need a comment on the quality of the documentary or the luminescent glow of the star within?”
So let us talk about what the documentary is, as opposed to what it is not, for a moment. I Am Divine traces the life and career of one Harris Glenn Milstead aka Divine. It is bookended by the premiere in Baltimore of the film Hairspray, directed by Baltimore native John Waters and starring Divine. Born into a middle-class family in 1940s Maryland, Glenn (as he liked to be known) was indulged by his parents as only children can be. The story becomes a relatively familiar one at this point: a tale of unhappiness and bullying which existed until he found solace with a group of new friends in the mid-1960s. These included the avant-garde theatre group The Cockettes and the filmmaker John Waters. With Waters directing, Divine starred in short films such as Roman Candles and Eat Your Makeup and features such as Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs. A cult following began on the back of midnight screenings and their partnership became widely celebrated with the release of Pink Flamingos. Success seemed assured for the actor.
I Am Divine is not a particularly inspiring documentary. What it really is, is an informative one. This may sound like an underhanded compliment and in one way it that is correct. Should you go in with very little knowledge of the actor (character?) Divine, beyond say the shock ending of Pink Flamingos, there is a lot to both learn and enjoy. The clips from the films, particularly the early ones are deranged and brilliant. You will want to watch them all in full. The problem with the documentary is that beyond the knowledge, it is relentlessly formulaic. The direction by Jeffrey Shwartz is dry and flat and the narrative is very predictable. For a subject that is so interesting that it leaps off the screen, it takes a lot to make a film that renders that a somewhat dull experience.
The documentary is saved by Divine himself, through sheer talent and personality which transcends the documentary and drags it kicking and screaming into life despite any lack of pizazz in its making. The wonderful John Waters interview, which appears sporadically, helps enormously in this regard although even he is underused when he should loom large.
As mentioned before, if this film makes any young film fan go rushing out to buy Divine’s films it is worth the effort entirely. Divine exists, frozen in celluloid immortality for future generations to discover. It was a time when American underground films were genuinely underground. Filthy and provocative but with love and respect for the outsider of which surely Divine was one. But for the most part I Am Divine is an uninspired documentary about an inspirational person. See it for the trashy fun and then go watch the films to discover the sheer talent involved behind and in front of the camera.