Tuesday, October 9, 2012

HAIR 1979

Not having been a huge fan of the original stage production of Hair (Gerome Ragni, James Rado, and Galt MacDermot’s legendary “American Tribal Love - Rock Musical”), I think I’m one of the few to find Milos Forman’s screen adaptationwhich deviates significantly from the source material in that it actually has a plotto be a flawed but vastly superior improvement upon the original. The music was always great, but only the movie version got me to care about who was doing the singing.
Evolved from the free-form, counterculture, guerrilla theater experience taking place on college campuses across the country in the late 60s, Hair debuted on Broadway to great acclaim and much brouhaha in 1968 (nudity, swearing, hippies…on Broadway?) almost a year after 1967s so-called "Summer of Love" signaled both the pinnacle and simultaneous pop-cultural co-opting of the hippie/flower-child movement. Yet, much like A Chorus Line, Hair, when viewed today, is one of those Broadways shows whose reputation as a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon may be a little hard to fully comprehend.
As a 10 year-old living in San Francisco’s Haight St. district in 1968, I was too young to have been a participant in the whole Flower Power scene, but when it came to bearing witness to all the social and political changes afoot, I have to say I had the best seat in the house. Even then it was odd to think of one's neighborhood as the hub of a "movement" the entire nation was talking about. Mostly I remember the poster stores, the head-shops, the buttons with slogans, the streets full of panhandling hippies, and vibrant color everywhere...especially in the clothing. (Sartorially speaking, the hippie movement hit my older sister pretty hard. Once recognizable by her Catholic School uniform; virtually overnight sandals, love-beads, headbands, tie-dyed tops and tinted granny-glasses became her standard mode of dress. It was like a Timothy Leary reversal of The Stepford Wives.)
Ren Woods (SparkleXanadu) sings the hell out of "Aquarius" in the film's marvelously visual opening sequence.
Never fully the blissed-out, flowers & freedom era depicted by the nostalgia-prone, I recall the late 60s as a time undeniably colorful and charged with a kind of “winds of change” electricity (each day brought something new in fashion, language, ideologies, music), yet also a time seriously untethered and terrifying. I’ll always remember how confounding it was to be surrounded by so much talk of peace and love while the TV filled my head with nightmare images of Vietnam, the Zodiac Killer, assassinations, riots, and Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. I suspect the hopeful message proffered by Hair's anti-war themes struck a chord with a disheartened America favoring the promise of a Utopian “Age of Aquarius” over what seemed to be the existing dark specter of Barry McGuire's “Eve of Destruction.”  
Treat Williams as George Berger
John Savage as Claude Hooper Bukowski
Beverly D'Angelo as Shelia Franklin
Annie Golden as Jeannie Ryan
Dorsey Wright as Layfayette (Hud) Johnson
Don Dacus as Woof Daschund
Had Hair been granted a film adaptation back in the late 60s or early 70s - when Hollywood awkwardly courted the youth market by green-lighting any and every druggy, nonsensical, counter-culture script that came along (Skidoo; Head; Alex in Wonderland; Angel, Angel,Down We Go); there’s a good chance the show’s somewhat meandering free-form structure would have reached the screen intact. Mercifully for me, the passage of ten years and one flop 1977 revival contributed to the perception of Hair as a timepiece too dated for unaltered big-screen transitioning. This precipitated the enlistment of playwright Michael Weller (Moonchildren) to fashion an honest-to-God storyline around Hair’s marvelous score of songs, and, in lieu of the then-requisite bearded twenty-something fresh out of film school to helm the project, we have Oscar-winning director Milos Foreman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), a man who was actually making films about 60s youths in the 60s. The climate for a Hair was certainly right, what with the proliferation of films being released dealing with the 60s and the Vietnam War: Coming Home (1978), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979).
If one goes into Milos Forman’s Hair with any expectation that the film will be a faithful adaptation of the Broadway show, watching the movie is likely to be a disappointing experience. The order of the songs has been rearranged, their intent altered, and many of songs are sung by totally different characters. I think the best and most rewarding way to view the film is to look at is as a completely different animal; an artistic expression unique unto itself. Where the play invited us “outsiders” into the world of the hippie tribe onstage, getting to know them through vignettes and pantomimes draped over a thin schematic structure; Foreman’s film maintains the perspective of the outsider and tells the story of Claude Hooper Bukowski (Savage), a naïve Oklahoma farm boy let loose in Manhattan for two days prior to his induction into the army. Depicted as an innocent adrift in a strange land, Claude is taken under the wing of a small band of hippies (their unofficial leader, Berger [Williams] first seen burning his draft card) and introduced to drugs, the girl of his dreams, and, most likely, the most fun he’s ever had.
Forman and Weller fashion a very entertaining and ultimately moving film out of what could have been just a timepiece jukebox musical. The film maintains the play's irreverent tone and captures rather well the generation gap conflicts and authority figure clashes that exemplified the era, but (and this is a big plus for me) never resorts to the kind of ageist oversimplification of that whole "don't trust anyone over 30" sensibility. Forman's Hair has an originality that far surpasses most adapted screen musicals and a powerfully rendered final act that gets to me each and every time.
I Got Life
Berger (Williams) disrupts a dinner party to the consternation of all but an admiring Charlotte Rae (seated, dressed in pink).

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
The experience of seeing a film based on a musical you’re very familiar with can be like going over a check list. You find yourself subconsciously keeping tally of how the film measures up to what you are already know. Hair destroys all of that from the first frame. It’s one of the most ceaselessly surprising musical adaptations I’ve ever seen. Whether structurally, musically, or visually, Hair consistently goes in directions different from where you think it’s headed. Just as things seem as if they will remain rooted in realism (the film makes great use of Manhattan locations), up pops a surreal or stylized sequence that totally blows you away. And the effect is exhilarating and exciting. All of a sudden the old feels brand new and you’re actually listening and watching, not comparing.
In one of Hair's more charming examples of an unexpected twist; an anticipated violent confrontation between loitering hippies and mounted police turns into a challenge dance routine.

PERFORMANCES:
In populating his cast with relative newcomers to film (Savage, Williams, D’Angelo) and those making their screen debut (Dacus, Golden, Cheryl Barnes) Milos Foreman succeeds in bringing a kind of ragged freshness to the film that’s perfect for the material. The more experienced do most of the heavy lifting, although newcomer Annie Golden is surprisingly good and a standout in her scenes. John Savage, fresh from The Deer Hunter, sidesteps the obvious clichés and makes his more reactive character into someone a great deal more dimensional than I would have expected possible. Treat Williams, saddled with an unfortunate wig, does the impossible by making an otherwise insufferably smug character into someone sympathetic and likeable. I think perhaps I’m fondest though of Beverly D’Angelo who is always such an offbeat and fascinating comedienne. I always wondered how Robert Altman ever passed her up. She seemed tailor-made for his ensemble pieces.
Making her film debut, Cheryl Barnes walked away with unanimous raves for her searing rendition of "Easy to Be Hard." 
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Of all the numerous delights and surprises in Hair, the film’s one true inspired stroke of genius was in getting Twyla Tharp to do the choreography. An unassailable talent and legend in the world of dance, I’ve never cared for her work either before or since; but here, with her loose-limbed, eccentric, wholly stylized flailings evocatively capturing the look (and, more importantly, the feel) of the era…her work is beyond perfect. Nothing else would have worked. Not jazz, not literal recreations of dances of the era. Tharp's choreography (and whomever was responsible for the clever staging and some of the witty visual concepts) are ideally suited.
Ellen Foley(above center) sings the virtues of "Black Boys" while below, Charlayne Woodard and Nell Carter (center) give equal time to "White Boys." The surprise twist given this number is hilariously ingenious and thoroughly audacious.

Melba Moore and Ronnie Dyson (members of the original Broadway cast of Hair) perform "3-5-0-0" at an anti-war demonstration staged in front of the Washington Monument.
Frequently, musicals have trouble sustaining their momentum through the third act, but Hair is one of the few movie musicals that come to mind that lack any downtime. It's extremely well paced and never lags for me. Even after multiple viewings. For every sequence of note I've mentioned, there are about three others that I don't have room to go into. Suffice it to say that the "Hare Krishna" number is one of those "worth the price of admission" sequences, and that it's more fun to discover the myriad actor cameos and conceptual surprises on your own.  

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
The highest compliment I can pay Milos Forman's adaptation of Hair is that he has succeeded in excising virtually everything I never cared for in the play (chiefly its morally superior proselytizing and romanticizing of the young) and created a film of considerable heart and maturity. More even-handed than the theatrical production, I find in Forman's version of Hair a film that sees the past with a clarity born of distance. Sentimental, yes. Idealistic, yes. But the one thing it isn't is nostalgic. I like how it looks at the 60s, holds both hippies and the Establishment to task, yet still finds it to be an era of optimism and hope.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

9 comments:

  1. I was born in '67, but didn't see the movie Hair (and have yet to see the stage version!) until I was thirty. It didn't grow on me the first time, but I've since come to love the movie and practically every song from the stage version. I cannot recommend the movie soundtrack enough because not only is it free of the ambient sounds of the movie, but has a really groovy vibe to it AND, most importantly, includes several songs from the stage production that for whatever reason didn't make the final cut of the film. I love, love love it! It allows those who love the music, but may not like the film's narrative, to enjoy the musical performances. Oddly, though, I don't care too much for the musical arrangement of the title song (though I do think Treat's vocals are good.) On that one I prefer the original style. I've sung it in concert before and even won $750 with it once in a competition! (Second place...)

    Next time you dive into The Underworld, you'll have to check out my tribute to Treat. Also, not to invade your blog, but I'm gonna provide a link to my rendition of the song Hair (and, yes, that's me at the end, in a wig every bit as bad as Mr. Williams'! LOL)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAg0YswtaB8

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    1. I think what I admire so much about Foreman's approach to "Hair" was that, in spite of it being this iconic show, he seemed to feel no obligation to meet expectations. A thorough re-imagining of the source material is something that might have helped the film version of "A Chorus Line."
      I'm a huge fan of the soundtrack as well and was stunned that there was so much extra music on the disc that didn't make it into the film. The same applies for recent re-releases of the original Broadway cast album...just TONS of music recorded that didn't fit on that old lp I used to own.
      I don't know if this movie is to everyone's taste, but it's hard not to be crazy about the score and the voices.

      And, I have to say, some revival of "Hair" is missing out on a great vocalist if they fail to scoop you up! Poseidon, that is a terrific rendition of "Hair" you linked me to. I've heard you sing standards, but your versatility is pretty enviable (as I can't sing a note- yet sing ALL the time, nonetheless). I can see why you won that competition.(And your wig still looks better than Mr. Williams'.)
      I'm going to check out your Treat Williams post now. I like your blog so much, I always make it a point not to check your site until after I've finished writing about a film so that I don't find myself subconsciously influenced. We seem to have so many similar tastes! Thanks for stopping by and thanks for sharing your link. I encourage others to give it a listen!

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  2. whats so nice about your blog is that you talk about films i've never heard about before... im sure were into different genres but its nice that you blog about these specific films..

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    1. Thank you very much! Yes, this blog is kind of an internet journal of my personal tastes, many of them obscure. I appreciate that you enjoy reading about movies even if they are outside of the scope you your own aesthetics.
      In fact, although you have been a member of my blog for some time, I had no idea you had a movie blog of your own. I hope you don't mind if I link you in my favorites column to remind me to take some time and explore your site. It looks very interesting with many great screen caps. Thanks very much for commenting!

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  3. One complaint that I have noticed numerous times in regards to Milos Forman's big screen adaptation of "Hair" is how different it is from the stage version. I too, did not catch this film until about the age of thirty, nor have I seen the stageplay (in fact, I was born the year prior to when the film was first released to cinemas!). I do enjoy strange films from the late sixties and early seventies, but even though this film was made on the brink of the 1980s, it still manages to feel authentic--it has both the look and feel of a movie made circa 1970. But getting back to those who would complain about the movie being so different from the stageplay, I feel that such people do not really understand the medium of cinema.

    Trust me, if somebody had intercepted Gerome Ragni, James Rado and Galt MacDermott before they could stage their first presentation of "Hair" for an audience, instead offering them all the means and resources needed to make the proposed play into a movie, you had better believe that the stage version of "Hair" as it is known to millions of folks from the Age of Aquarius would never have seen the light of day. If the team of Ragni-Rado-McDermott had been working for screen instead of stage, the standard version of "Hair" would be the movie, and the movie made by Ragni-Rado-MacDermott would've resembled more what Milos Forman did more than a decade later, much less what originally appeared on the boards back in the 1960s.

    The medium of film allowed Forman to do things that would've been rather impractical to attempt on the stage. There's no doubt in my mind that on many occasions, Rado and Ragni had some really groovy ideas for their play, only to stamp their feet, snap their fingers and lament "Damn it, that just won't work...if this were a film, maybe." (The same thing must often happen to novelists, who have an idea that is somewhat cinematic, but difficult to express in the literary sense in only a small number of words). Milos Forman didn't have that roadblock impeding his artistic vision. Instead he had a camera crew, big fat cans of film stock, locations that didn't merely "exist" on a stage, plus the ability to chop in between multiple scenes in the blink of an eye.


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  4. Besides, you could attend one hundred different stage interpretations of "Hair" and not once shall you witness anything like the amazing swirling panoramic shot of Ren Woods singing "Age of Aquarius". It's one of my favourite scenes from all of cinema. Milos Forman actually was (and still is) a big fan of the stage musical version. The biggest crime, I believe, would've been to pander to "stage purists" who don't fully comprehend the power of cinema and its potential. Forman obviously knew what an opportunity he had when he took on the project to bring "Hair" to the big screen. I've seen a fair amount of Forman's earlier work on he big screen, from his Czech New Wave up to his biggest Hollywood triumphs, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus". Perhaps I'm in the minority here, but I do feel that "Hair" belongs alongside them as a veritable triumph of cinema's potential. It's an absolutely brilliant film, one that demands to be experienced on the largest screen possible.

    I think you've touched upon much of what makes "Hair" such a great film, Ken, and it's good to get the perspective of somebody who grew up in San Francisco back in those days. Also, for anybody who feels that the movie came "too late", I disagree. The fact that it was released during the last days of disco and right before the "greed is good" decade only made its message more timely. The 1960s wasn't the period that needed this film the most. It came along at the right time, and could have even waited another couple years. In any event, the film has stood the test of time, despite those who may dismiss it as a quaint period piece.

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    1. Hi Mark
      (replying to both of your comment posts here) You really made some insightful observations about screen adaptations of theatrical and literary works. I agree with you that film is at it's best and the experience so much more enriching when a filmmaker is capable of translating material from another medium into uniquely cinematic terms. As I see it, a new medium demands a new interpretation. Otherwise just see the show or read the book. I too think of "Hair" as being one of Forman's under-appreciated triumphs.
      I have a friend who actually was in college in 1968 and he says that the final act of Forman's "Hair" chokes him up and captures the 60s zeitgeist better than any film he's ever seen.
      I think it's a testament to the film that someone your age doesn't find the movie to be distancing or lacking in relevance. And indeed, I think you nail it when you say the film's release came about at the time of another American cultural shift as we were entering the 80s.
      I always appreciate your comments, Mark, but you really brought up some interest points this time. Thanks, as always, for reading and contributing.
      Oh, and lastly...as you indicated, "Hair" is truly a film that comes alive on the big screen. It opened at the Cinerama Dome here and I can't even count how often I returned to see that swirling opening sequence in super wide screen and blaring sound!

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  5. One of the best stage-to-screen adaptations...EVER!

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    1. Hi CAL!
      Of course I agree. I can be a purist sometimes, but some properties just call out for being re-imagined when adapted to the screen. I agree (of course) that "Hair" is one of the best. I wish someone could think of ways of bringing otherwise unfilmable, dated musicals (Promises, Promises; Company; Follies)to the screen with this much style.

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