A big, colorful extravaganza, “Wigstock: The Movie,” a celebration of New York’s annual drag festival, is more of a recorded spectacle than a probing or critical documentary. To achieve crossover appeal beyond gay audiences after June openings, Goldwyn pickup needs sensitive marketing and may be helped by following on the high heels of Amblin and Universal’s drag comedy “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” which will come out a month earlier.
The art — and politics — of drag are no longer an underground or countercultural phenomenon. Mainstream Hollywood comedies “Tootsie” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” and, recently, foreign pix such as “The Crying Game” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” have demonstrated that the American public is willing to embrace what used to be a campy, underground gay subculture.
“Wigstock: The Movie” may both benefit and suffer as a result of this changing context, for while there is more mainstream acceptance of drag, its novelty is also rapidly waning.
The annual Gotham event, held on Labor Day in downtown Manhattan, burst onto the underground scene a decadee ago. The first event took place at Thompson Square Park in the East Village, but it has since spread to other locations: the West Village and Christopher Street’s piers, still the heart of the city’s gay ghetto. Boasting attendance of 20,000 people, the festival is still emceed by its original creator and reigning diva, the Lady Bunny.
For the most part, the movie lives up to its claim –“Woodstock without bad hair”– for the wigs on display and the interviews with people who make and sell them are truly funny.
Using footage from the festival’s two latest editions, director Barry Shils has tried to capture the spirit of the event — with mixed results. His cameras go behind the scenes to reveal the studious preparation and arduous rehearsal, all culminating in a variety show that showcases dazzling costumes and hilarious acts of uniquely talented performers.
Joey Arias, a fixture on the N.Y. club scene, stands out in his drag act, one that “channels” the spirit of legendary singer Billie Holiday. Some of the other participants have already become pop culture icons, like Alexis Arquette and Jackie Beat; RuPaul, “supermodel of theworld,” the musical group Deee-lite, dance recording star Crystal Waters, Mistress Formika and, perhaps most entertaining of all, Lypsinka, recently chosen by New York magazine as one of the Big Apple’s 100 smartest people.
In fact, Lypsinka is one of the few performers who provide commentary on the event’s sociocultural significance. Overall, though, some deeper human and political dimensions are missing, like revelatory stories about motivations for engaging in the festival and discussions of the gratifications that go beyond “fun for fun’s sake.” Though there are some interviews with members of both the gay and straight public, docu lacks the critical element that made a docu like “Paris Is Burning” so poignantly touching and politically significant.
That said, “Wigstock: The Movie” is still a fun show to behold, a tribute to the human imagination at its most diverse and eccentric.