Thursday, October 17, 2013


When Baltimore filmmaker John Waters bestowed the name "Divine" on his friend Glenn Milstead during their first cinematic collaboration, the 1966 short Roman Candles, it was never meant to stick, but with a brash drag alter ego to escape into, the shy, bullied Milstead found a whole new path as a performer, one that would blaze colorfully, but all too briefly, through the worlds of film, theatre and music. Divine's was a remarkably unique life, full of dualities, redemption and unapologetically trashy behavior, making him an all but irresistible documentary subject, and while director Jeffrey Schwarz latest effort, I Am Divine, is a snappy, affectionate portrait, it mostly succeeds by staying out of its protagonist's way.

Producer-director Schwarz has built something of a cottage industry chronicling interesting gay lives (Vito, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon) and there's an experienced efficiency to the way he packs 42 years of anecdotes and identity crises into 90 minutes, from Milstead's lonely childhood to his falling in with Waters and the drugged-out coterie of Dreamlanders freaks, and on to his incandescent stardom and untimely demise. There are plenty of engaging original interviews from friends and co-conspirators, particularly Waters, who always makes for an entertaining talking head, but Schwarz also leans rather heavily on clips from Divine's films and talk show appearances, though considering his flair in front of a camera, that's not exactly a drawback.

The documentary isn't all surface, delving into his sexuality, the struggle to live down the Pink Flamingos-inspired image as a dog shit-eating maniac and get the respect he deserved as an actor or his distant relationship with his family, but there are times when you wish the offstage Divine, the quiet, generous man his friends knew, got a little more screen time. While it could be more intimate, the film has fun with the high points, the international infamy and glamorous celebrity hobnobbing, while keeping things grounded in the ultimately very human story of a repressed young man who found a way to escape, and did so spectacularly. There's a reason the name stuck.

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