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
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...)ReplyDelete
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)
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."Delete
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!
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..ReplyDelete
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.Delete
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!
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.ReplyDelete
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.
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.
(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!
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.Delete
Congratulations Ken! for your writing about "Hair" with such a precise sense and the ability to explain its virtues and qualities, to show why it stands out and why it passes the test of time. Keeping an objective stance in your observations must have been hard, since you obviously love the movie (as we all do I suppose, since we are on your blog). There is a certain magic that surrounds this movie. I believe that the actors, and the director, were inspired when working on it, to say the least. Treat Williams brings a genuine warmth and heart to a charming Berger and so the movie rests on his playing. It is obvious they enjoyed bringing the Broadway act into the realm of cinema, and were blessed and happy to be the ones to breathe new life into it. Moreover, I think that Wheeler and Forman injected several symbolistic allusions or transcendental references throughout the movie that underpin its narrative, and somehow anchor it in an invisible but solid esoteric structure, giving to it a spiritual dimension beyond the Hippie or Flower Power movement ideas or motifs (a la Tarkovski). I believe this was done in a subtle way by Foreman, using the Hippie culture environment here as a pretext to allude towards more universal symbols, and therefore his subtle manner of interweaving Sacred with the Profane dimensions (especially in the LSD - Hare Krisha section of the Sacred Wedding between Sheila and Claude, when the Horse appears so wonderfully from the mist at the Church door, and the Bride becomes pregnant-at-term instantly and then starts flying... etc.) represent one of the great achievements of the movie, creating a vibrant and exhilarating 'hallucinogenic' scene where you can observe living Symbols and Spirits appearing, talking and "officiating" at a party that is a celebration of Life and of the hidden dimensions beyond the visible realm. I recall reading on the web somewhere but cannot find the source easily anymore, that Milos Forman, when interviewed about his career and movies, confessed that when his close friends visited him at his house, most of them asked him to screen for them... not other movie but "Hair". I thought this speaks for itself. Another point that I want to make is that somewhat strangely... this movie became a cult of the hippie movement outside the US, more than inside the US. Perhaps living within America during the hippie times did not help in connecting most of the population with the meaning of the times and with this "ideology" (about which Mircea Eliade commented that it reminded him of the early Christian era), maybe because hippies were perceived as outcasts, a socially "deplorable" phenomenon at the periphery of "good"/"respectable" established society and not everyone loved them, but in general the majority preferred to look the other way. While the force and principles of the freedom of the spirit (which "Aquarius" represents), unconditional love of one another, friendship, open-mindedness, openness to experimentation had a huge impact on a larger, Universal scale, perhaps larger beyond America's boundaries. Tangentially, I cannot help but wonder what the hippies of the '60s would think of what US has become in the meantime.Delete
Thanks for contributing your own thoughtful impressions of this film among the comments here.
I daresay that no child of the Sixties could ever have envisioned that, after the passage of some 30-plus years, the US would appear on a course so retrograde and shameful.
But after shaking their heads at how little attention was paid to the lyrics of all those protest songs of the era ("Wehn will they ever learn?"), I think the hippies and revolutionaries of the era would certainly recognize the spirit of rebellion and protest in today's youth. I hope so.
Glad that this film is a favorite of yours and that you took the time to read this post (thank you!) and share your thoughts. I especially like your description of the hallucinogenic Hare Krishna sequence- certainly one of my favorite sequences in a film of many. I'm glad to hear this has become one of Forman's most favored films among his fans.
And of course I love your your "handle" - that name is attached to one of my all-time favorite lyric rhymes. I can't read it without the rhythm and meter popping into my head. It's like a couplet (if i knew anything about couplets!) Thank you!
One of the best stage-to-screen adaptations...EVER!ReplyDelete
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.
I have always loved this movie because of the totally sexy Berger! ;)ReplyDelete
Can't argue with you there!Delete
Cheryl Barnes' rendition of "Easy to be hard," hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw this at age 18 in 1979. I bought the soundtrack, but you need to watch her sing it to get the full impact. Thank God for youtube. I'm sure you've read about her attending the LA premiere and how they had to stop the movie because the audience gave her a ten minute standing ovation. Mind-boggling. Apparently she chose not to aggressively pursue her career and now lives happily with her family in Finland (!) I also read that she was chosen by Michael Bennett to replace Jennifer Holiday after a following out during the workshop of DREAMGIRLS. Then Holiday returned and she was out. I have to think she would have been stunning in that part.ReplyDelete
Boy, I remember well the impact of Barnes' performance of "Easy to Be Hard." One of the more remarkable things about Forman's film was it's ability to breathe new life into so many songs that had either been played to death in the '60s, or had come to be so closely associated with their successful cover versions.Delete
No one thinks about Three Dog Night's hit version of "Easy to Be Hard" when they hear Cheryl Barnes' emotional rendition.
America's fame-obsession and success ethic made it unthinkable to many that she didn't ride the wide acclaim she garnered for this movie into a recording or acting career. Everybody I know who's seen it many years later are always flummoxed that this didn't turn her into a star overnight.
I hadn't heard abut the DREAMGIRLS anecdote, however, and agree she would have been wonderful (and a good deal less trouble) than Holiday in the role.