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 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.
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 (Sparkle, Xanadu) sings the hell out of "Aquarius" in the film's visually explosive 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|
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
; 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
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 Forman (One Flew Over the
), a man who was actually making films about '60s youths in
60s (his 1971 comedy Taking Off
is a favorite). Certainly in the late '70s the climate for Hair
was 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
If one goes into Milos Forman’s Hair
with any expectation of the film being 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 powerful and sensitively 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 Forman 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." |
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, Nell Carter (center), and Trudy Perkins 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 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
to be 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: it holds both hippies and the Establishment to task, yet still finds it to be an era of optimism and hope.
THE AUTOGRAPH FILES
|Nell Carter - 1980|
Copyright © Ken Anderson