Tuesday, May 9

Good 70s Films: Hair

1979 Musical
From United Artists
Directed by Milos Forman

John Savage
Treat Williams
Beverly D'Angelo
Annie Golden
Dorsey Wright
Don Dacus
Cheryl Barnes
Miles Chapin
Charlotte Rae
Renn Woods
Nell Carter
Michael Jeter

Back in the mid-70s, on a warm California night, I had one of the greatest entertainment experiences of my life seeing the stage play of Gerome Radni and James Rado's tribal rock opera, Hair. With new clothes on my back from some funky little shop on Melrose, a good-looking woman on my arm and some substances in my system (nothing serious... don't get hyper), I was looking forward to having my mind blown.  I had been promised by those who saw it that I would never forget this night. And I never have.  I had seen or would see every important musical play I wanted to and several to this day remain among my favorite live entertainment experiences, but boys and girls, there was never anything quite like Hair.  

At the intermission my legs were shaking so much that I thought I would spill my drink.  I had no idea that the play was going to end with all in the giant cast but one performer being bare-ass naked. My temples were pulsating from the flush of excitement and the thrill of discovery of this type of entertainment, this rock opera.

I couldn't help but think it all had something to do with my life. The war that I hated had just ended or would be soon, I was still angry, I still questioned authority, I was still fond of civil disobedience, I distrusted my government.  I had just discovered marijuana... by California standards, at least, I was a late bloomer and an embarrassment to my friends.  Not only did I wear my hair to my shoulders (for about eight months) but I obsessed about hair.  I was forever happy that I had so much of it (and still do, thanks so much).  I was never a hippie, per se, but I, um, understood where they were coming from.  We weren't exactly polar opposites.  If this play seemed like part of my life put to music, I was blissfully happy about it. Finally, someone was paying attention... and in a way I could never have imagined.

I asked at the time... who in the hell is Milos Forman?  Isn't he that Czech director who four years earlier won an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?  Good for you, Milos, for sure, but what do you know about the unrest of the 60s in America or making a musical of this type, especially?  Did anyone tell you this isn't Rodgers and Hammerstein?

Luckily, Milos Forman knew everything there was to know and he gave us a marvelous motion picture.  In my mind, it is one of the most imaginative live-action films I have ever seen.  From the opera standpoint, it is one helluva lot of music... not quite non-stop but it gets close.

It is such a kick to remember Claude, Berger, Sheila, Jeannie, Hud, Wolf and all the others. I would love to have spent a little time with y'all in Central Park.

The film opens quietly with cameras gazing down on an Oklahoma farmhouse porch where Claude Hooper Bukowski (Savage) is readying for his bus trip to New York. He has received his draft notice. His daddy drives him to the bus stop in the middle of nowhere and gives him last-minute advice while the bus waits... gotta watch out for the smart people but the Lord will take care of the ignorant folk.  Hint, hint, Claude.

The astonishing camerawork of this film allows us to see some beautiful rural areas of the Midwest through the bus windows.  As the Greyhound moves into the big cities, the quiet we've heard all along changes to the rhythmic beat of the first strains of the film's most famous song, Aquarius.  

Before long we see some folks that don't look at all like Claude. They look like they're homeless, the clothes are patched together and they're laughing while they burn their draft cards.

Finally we're in Central Park.  It's bustling with people, sunshine and adventure.  We again see that draft card-burning band... the ringleader Berger (Williams), pasty-skinned Woof (Dacus), chocolaty Hud (Wright) and pregnant Jeannie (Golden) who isn't sure if Woof or Hud is the father.  And from another direction comes Claude, all suited-up and tied, looking out of place but happy to be there.

All this time we're hearing those strains to Aquarius, which is dying to get moving along with the lyrics. This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, Ren Woods begins.  She is wondrous-looking with her smile, serenity and flowers populated throughout her afro. The cameras circle around her time and again as she moves through the anthem and aerial shots zoom in and out to embrace all else going on in the park.  

Everywhere there is dancing.  This isn't Dancing with the Stars, but dancing among them.  Again I must use the adjective imaginative to describe the brilliant choreography of Twyla Tharp in her first big movie gig.  Her dancers seem to be all over the place involved in some athletic, gymnastic, free-form of self-expression that is simply mind-blowing.  Astaire and Rogers stay home... they ain't ever done it like this. Much of the dancing is fused with humor, like horses with cops aboard matching the steps of a pair of dancers.  I didn't see that in the play. This is in no uncertain terms one of the best opening numbers ever.

Claude joins up with Berger and the others and soon Claude is besotted with Sheila, an upper-class beauty whom he spots horseback riding through the park with her snooty mother and another.

Berger thinks Claude should spend some time with Sheila before he goes off to the Army, which Berger fully intends to talk him out of doing. For my money the best scene and song beyond the opening is the crashing of Sheila's debutante party. Watching everyone react to these scruffy hippies (Hud cleaning his fingernails with a salad fork) in an otherwise elegant setting is a scream.  I laugh my ass off every time.  Williams' singing of I Got Life as he walks and dances the length of a formally-set table with snooty guests on each side is a major kick.

Sheila begins having some feelings for the motley gang and joins them in the park for a day of LSD.  We hear someone excoriate the war by saying over a mike that it's about white people sending black people to make war against the yellow people to defend land that they stole from the red people.  Well, everything can't be singing and dancing.  I have never been able to get over the fact that it certainly looks like John Savage took a cube of acid because his face contorts (and I know the look) just as it might have.  Or was that simply great acting?

The title song is sung in jail by Woof and Hud and some inmates. Berger is not there because he is outing looking for bail money for his friends.  He visits his parents and gets in a shouting match with his dad who tells him if he wants the money, he has to cut his hair first. Obviously young men around the country were well aware of the bribe.

The hilarious and sexy song, Black Boys/White Boys, with its gay overtones, could easily be considered a show-stopper by some.  I love how they interspersed black officers lustily inducting a white recruit and then white officers doing the same with a black recruit while three black women put the moves on some white guys in the park and white women do the same with black men. Holey-moley, what a fun song.  I've always remembered straight audiences acting out when one of the black officers sings the line... white boys give me goosebumps.  I roll with laughter...

Easy to be Hard is beautifully sung by Cheryl Barnes as the woman Hud has left behind. Its lament is certainly a signal that the tone of the story is going to turn.  That, of course, happens with Claude leaving the group for boot camp in Nevada.  After they read a letter from Claude, his new friends decide to go to Nevada in Sheila's convertible. The song for this scene is the lilting Good Morning Starshine.

Through a series of comical mishaps, Berger ends up impersonating Claude in the barracks while Claude sneaks away to see the others in the desert.  It isn't so funny, however, when the soldiers are all moved out suddenly.  Berger marches onto the plane as we see Claude running toward it.  It is poignant to be sure.  In the next scene we see Berger's gravestone.

Let the Sunshine In is sung by throngs of people standing in front of the White House. The movie about flower power had come to an end.

For the record, some of the other songs are Sodomy, Hashish, Colored Spade, Manchester, L.B.J., Hare Krishna, Where Do I Go, 
Walking in Space, Someone to Love. Most involve dancing and some have some ear-popping lyrics.  Google the words to Sodomy if you dare.

John Savage

I had not heard of most of this cast before seeing the film.  I did know of Savage and a little of D'Angelo, but the others were new. Some of them I have also never seen in anything else.  Here is a movie with perfect casting.  Savage is particularly right for the role. I heard he wasn't the first choice but he was certainly the best one. Claude's innocence and discomfort had to be evident if the actor in this part is to be believed.  He embraced the people before he embraced their lifestyle.

Williams is the embodiment of Berger.  He is blessed with some bulls-eye timing, an ingratiating smile, he moves well and sings better.  I hope that was his own voice.  His character is certainly the heart of the film.

The singers and dancers had a lot on their plates.  There must have been times when someone said to one of the choreographers... you want me to do what? I'll bet these folks bonded during the production... it certainly shows on screen.

Bravo to Forman.  It's a masterful job on a sprawling project and it was pulled off superbly.  I have always loved most of Galt MacDemott's songs... such exuberance.  I certainly don't know how Ann Roth's costumes could have been more spot-on or that Stuart Wurtzel's production design could have been any richer. 

The film takes a stand.  It's never less than clear what that is regarding the war.  It's a total tribute to hippies... no film has ever been kinder to them.  The stand the film takes is never heavy-handed and is done with style and grace.  Hair is an everlasting joy to me for the light that it shines on the artistry of being a good friend.   It certainly stands among my favorite musicals.  It's a good history lesson and how nice to do it with music.

The movie is different from the play in some significant ways but the changes work for the film.  Some songs from the play have been left out of the film... they say because it slowed the film down. If so, I am glad because this movie's pacing is one of its strengths.

Get out your love beads, headbands, tie-dyed tops, vests and sandals, light up some incense and grab some space and listen to that fabulous opening number.

Next posting:
The Directors



  1. I saw the play in LA three times when I had no money and was living on credit cards...groceries from 7-11. I didn't care. It made the hair on my neck stand up and gave me chills! Even got a little of that from this writing. Thanks for the memories.

  2. I thought I'd hear from you...!