Doc of the Day: Wigstock: The Movie Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Wigstock: The Movie

Posted in Days of Docs by - May 08, 2012

Pull on your pantyhose and step into your high heels, girls; it’s Wigstock!

Dir. Barry Shils, 1995, 85 min

Every summer through the 1980’s and 90’s, thousands of drag queens, and tens of thousands of spectators, would descend on a public space in New York City for Wigstock, a festival of song, dance, and fey fabulousness. Wigstock: The Movie follows the 1994 festival. The heels are high, the wigs are enormous, and the performers are unfailingly outrageous.

The movie switches between performances and backstage shenanigans. A number of famous drag queens either run or sing in the festival, including, of course, RuPaul. The Mistress of Ceremonies, and closest thing to a main character, is Lady Bunny, who helped found the event. In between song and dance numbers, the queens talk about various aspects of drag culture. Oh, and Lady Bunny tries get a wig put on the Statue of Liberty, but the city doesn’t take kindly to that idea. Killjoys.

While I’ve yet to meet a drag queen in person, they seem kind of delightful. Each one builds a larger-than-life persona around themselves, turning into a sort of living performance art. The drag style is based on satirizing the cultural gender norms of clothing and personal appearance, and making every waking moment a huge middle finger to heteronormative practice. Their complete lack of self-consciousness and infectious upbeat spirit is tremendously appealing. Wigstock is a celebration of all this, and Wigstock is a celebration of Wigstock.

There’s some overlap between this doc’s subject matter and Paris is Burning, which also looks at drag culture. But while Paris is Burning is the dark, impoverished, seedy nightlife of New York, Wigstock is the daytime, celebrating, happy New York. Paris is far, far from a dour film (in fact it’s defiantly chipper), but it was all about drag as a way of masking pain. Here, the queens talk about drag as being for its own sake, as a method of self-actualization, almost. One rather… vivid performance sees a man in a comically oversized costume “giving birth” to a woman, which is intellectually intriguing as well as totally audacious.

Again and again, songs are sung about being true to yourself, being defiant of the norm, or both. Wigstock: The Movie is all about not letting anything keep you down. It’s an idea that can apply even if you aren’t a man who likes dressing as a woman. And if that doesn’t interest you, then come for the astounding wigs. Seriously, some are as big as the people wearing them. Wigstock may not be a regular event anymore, but thanks to the preservative power of film, anyone can pay a visit.

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Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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