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 adaptation—which deviates significantly from the source material in that it actually has a plot—to 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.
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).
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.
|Ren Woods (Sparkle, Xanadu) 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|
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.|
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.
|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