Friday, December 04, 2015

Hair (1979)

USA / West Germany, 121 minutes
Director: Milos Forman
Writers: Gerome Ragni, James Rado, Michael Weller
Photography: Richard C. Kratina, Miroslav Ondricek, Jean Talvin
Music: Galt MacDermot
Editors: Alan Heim, Lynzee Klingman, Stanley Warnow
Cast: John Savage, Treat Williams, Beverly D'Angelo, Annie Golden, Dorsey Wright, Cheryl Barnes, Don Dacus, Renn Woods, Miles Chapin, Melba Moore, Ronnie Dyson, Stylistics

The original Broadway stage production of Hair in the late '60s seemed—by reputation, as I've never seen that version—to be a project mainly concerned with flouting convention, also known as something like "shocking the straights." As live theater, it was thus filled with nudity, sexuality, drugs, flag and other disrespect, not really rock 'n' roll but some good songs, and, of course, long-haired hippies everywhere you look. But produced as a movie 10 years later, on the eve of the election of Ronald Reagan, it is something rather different.

For one thing, it has a great director at the helm in Milos Forman, fresh off the commercial triumph of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who had wanted to adapt Hair for years. Then somebody, presumably screenwriter Michael Weller, made up a story—a good story. It's still very much a musical, with pretty much all the same songs (and the incidental vulgarities), but now it has a certain narrative force with an allegorical tale of the hippie milieu. There's a young boy from Oklahoma, Claude Bukowski (John Savage), who is off to do his duty in Vietnam, but along the way he runs into a band of hippies headed up by George Berger (Treat Williams), which tries to get him to see their ways, because they love him.

Well, they love everyone—they are hippies. But so much in Hair is done so well, and so right, that I'm surprised it has slipped into some kind of neglected backwater, dismissed as trite or whatever the perceived problems might be. It is actually supremely well done, dazzling and full of bristling energy, insight, and wonderful moments from beginning to end, under Forman's sure hand. It looks and feels like Midnight Cowboy in its gorgeous Oklahoma prologue, for example, like nothing that could be done on a stage. Bukowski is accompanied by his father to his rendezvous with the bus that will take him away. They are both wary and full of emotion about the moment, with obvious affection. At the last minute, his father gives him a $50 bill, saying, "You never know what's gonna happen between here and there."

Cut to the theme, "Aquarius," in a sparkling funk version with a bracing vocal performance by Renn Woods in New York City's Central Park, the camera so in love with her and the song that it madly swirls around her as if it is dancing itself. And what does Bukowski discover behind that glorious music, his first experience in New York City and practically his first outside of Oklahoma? A balled-up maelstrom of writhing hippies, that's what, choreography by Twyla Tharp, who, it must be said, plays an outsize role in making this movie work. The dancing all through Hair is notably splendid—decked out in patched jeans bellbottoms, raggedy shirts and vests, motley head adornments, buckskin fringes, scarves, and flowing gowns, the troupe of dozens caper and fling about madly but with primal beautiful grace. Some of these dance turns, and there are many of them, are intense spectacles that collapse into themselves. You just gape at them even as they catapult the momentum. These are the points where it's easy to get lost in Hair, to return again and again.

The picture has some obvious flavor and may even be marred by mechanical takes on issues of the day, moving about from Vietnam to race relations to sexual freedom to changing family responsibilities. With each one it dutifully puts on a long serious face and mostly lets the songs do the talking, which works fine when the songs and performances are there, as with "Easy to Be Hard." As for the silly places Hair goes, such as dancing horses or a recruiting station scene where African-American military brass is wild for white boys (vocal performance by the Stylistics), they are often redeemed by the playfulness with which they're rendered. They're fun.

Treat Williams has maybe never been better than he is here, as the careless hedonist Berger, who is a nitwit, an emotional child in the body of a 22-year-old, but has a heart and a courage supported by that heart—if he only had a brain—that you can't help but be on his side in every insane thing he decides to do. He's clearly a trouble maker, perhaps modeled a little on Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, irascible but always charming. In fact, the surprising power of the unexpected ending of Hair is derived directly out of Berger's persona.

Perhaps the most famous scene in the picture happens at a wedding party the band of hippies has crashed. Bukowski has fallen in love with a rich girl and they are there to see her. In the process of outraged attempts by citizens to eject him, Berger steps on the formal banquet table, gently nudges aside place settings with his filthy hippie tennis shoes, and does a song and dance routine to "I Got Life." There's something of classic cinema to me now in this scene. It feels very familiar, as if modeled on the work of some Central European filmmaker, perhaps Forman himself, or maybe it's a Bunuel scene I'm thinking of. It's effective as a big moment but there are many effective big moments in Hair, which remains worth a look at least.

1 comment:

  1. Wonder where the rock critics were on Hair? Xgau, Marcus, Bangs? Doing a quick search I came across this book called Rock N Film by David E. James. Need to see if they a copy at the library. And want to see this one.