Wigstock: The Movie–Celebrating New York’s Annual Drag Festival

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 cross-over appeal beyond gay audiences, Goldwyn’s picture needs sensitive handling and strategic release plan, due to Amblin’s upcoming “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” also scheduled for the summer.

The art–and politics–of drag are no longer an underground or countercultural phenomenon. Over the last several years, several mainstream Hollywood comedies, like Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, and recently foreign picturess like 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 as a form of entertainment, its novelty is also rapidly waning.

The annual N.Y. event, held on Labor Day in downtown Manhattan, burst onto the underground scene some 10 years ago. The first event took place at Thompson Square Park, in the East Village, but it since spread to other locations: the West Village and Christopher Street’s Piers, still the heart of N.Y.’s gay ghetto. Boasting a record-breaking 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 hilarious. In ichnographic effect, Wigstock may be to “Wigs” what Lawrence of Arabia was to “Sands” and Dr. Zhivago to “Snow.”

Using footage from the festival’s two latest editions, director 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” (to use his words) the spirit of legendary singer Billie Holliday. Some of the other participants have already become pop culture icons, like Alexis Arquette and Jackie Beat; RuPaul, “supermodel of the world,” 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 Big Apple’s 100 smartest people.

Lypsinka is one of the few performers who provides commentary on the event’s socio-cultural significance. Overall, though, some deeper human and political dimensions are missing, like revelatory stories about motivations to engage in the festival and discussions of gratifications that go beyond “fun for fun’s sake.” Though there are some interviews with both gay and straight public, docu lacks the critical element that made a docu like Paris Is Burning so poignantly touching and politically significant.

Wigstock: The Movie is still a fun show to behold, a tribute to the human imagination at its most diverse and eccentric.

A Samuel Goldwyn release. Produced by Dean Silver and Marlen Hecht. Executive producers Klaus Volkenborn, Susan Ripps, Barry Shils.

With: Alexis Arquette, Jackie Beat, Deee-lite, The Lady Bunny, Lypsinka, Mistress Formika.