Posted in: Disc Reviews by M. W. Phillips on July 25th, 2011
“Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair, shining gleaming steaming flaxen waxen. Give me it down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer, here, baby, there, mamma, everywhere, daddy, daddy hair! Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair!”
Born in the late 50s, I was a child of 60s and a teen in the 70s. I believed in the revolution. The Beatles and The Stones would lead the charge against the establishment. I grew my hair to mid back, stayed perpetually high, experimented sexually and washed infrequently. I used my selective service draft card to clean the seeds out of my pot. I was hippy and Hair was our manifesto. Now, I speak of the cult Broadway musical, Hair. The songs were prophecy of the future when the flower power movement finally conquered the squares. The lockstep Nixon youth, Wall Street plutocrats and pickled religious zealots would fall under the spell of free thinking and free love. Jupiter aligned with Mars. Peace would guide the planet and love would steer the stars. It was the dawning Age of Aquarius, man.
The revolution never came. Most of the hippies eventually cleaned up, cut their hair and became even bigger capitalists than their parents. The sellout betrayed an entire generation and generations to come. This proved my first great heartbreak. Now, looking back at two-time, Best Director Academy Award winner, Milos Forman’s movie adaptation of the stage play Hair, it all seems sadly whimsical and idealistic.
The film starts on the back roads of Oklahoma. Claude Bukowski (an impossibly young John Savage) is stiffly saying his goodbyes to his father at the bus stop. The entire scene speaks of emotional repression and dreary daily repetition. Claude’s draft number came up, and next stop, Vietnam by way of New York City. Claude is so naive and backwoods he isn’t even afraid of Washington offering him up as a sacrifice to one of the bloodiest and meaningless wars of all time. This is his chance to experience the world. He’ll take in the Empire State Building or maybe a boat tour to the Statue of Liberty, before reporting to Nevada for basic training. Don’t even think about why his bus would go from Oklahoma to Nevada by way of NYC. Just stop, you’re killing my buzz, man.
First stop, Central Park. It is in this refuge of flora and fauna caged in by steel mountains he meets the hippies, the wildest of wildlife. They openly do drugs and speak out against the man, but most subversively, they dance and sing. Much like Michael Jackson would do many years later with the zombies in Thriller, the dancing is so enthralling it compels even the mounted police to join in with the choreography.
Claude is transfixed, staring at the flower children like animals in a zoo, when he witnesses a mini class war involving our heroes, George Berger (oh very young Treat Williams), Hud (Dorsey Wright), Woof (Don Dacus) and pregnant Jeannie Ryan (Annie Golden in her film debut), versus horseback-riding debutantes led by Sheila (a little too old for the part, but still sexy Beverly D’Angelo). One thing leads to another and before you can sing, “Gliddy glup goopy, nibby nabby noopy la la la lo lo, Sabba sibby sabba, nooby abba nabba le le lo lo, Tooby ooby walla, nooby abba nabba, early morning singing song,” Claude’s smoked pot, crashed high society parties, dropped acid, spent the night in jail, freely loved and fallen for Sheila… as well as the hippy movement. All good things must come to an end, and soon Claude is off to basic training. Never fear though, the hippies save the day again, however at a very sobering cost which leaves you with a pit in your stomach and a lump in your throat.
First off let me say Hair the movie is poles apart from Hair the Broadway musical. Not only are their plots (if you could call the stage play’s narrative a plot) radically different, but even the order of the songs and who sings them is changed up. The movie is very dated. The hippies seem a little too clean, the dances little too elaborate, and the songs themselves a little too amped up. This really seems evident with the jailhouse version of the title track, Hair.
Treat Williams totally charmed me. I didn’t realize he got his start in showbiz in Broadway choruses, but that training really shows here. He has a great voice and serves as the perfect avatar for flower power righteousness. He just steals the show whenever the camera is on him. Dorsey Wright brings an intensity he would repeat that same year as Cleon in The Warriors. Annie Golden captures the wide-eyed innocence of the era; btw, does anyone else remember Annie as the lead singer for the 80s new wave band, The Skirts? Speaking of musicians, Don Dacus played lead guitar for Chicago after the tragic suicide of Terry Kath, and he brings that long hair, rock and roll aesthetic to the movie. Keep an eye out for Nell Carter, Charlotte Rae, Melba Moore, and even director Nicholas Ray in brief cameos. It’s said Madonna and Bruce Springsteen both also auditioned for the movie, but didn’t make the cast.
The highlight of the film comes when Hud is confronted by his former fiancé (Cheryl Barnes), whom he has abandoned for the free-love lifestyle. He turns his back on his infant and baby mama as she begs him not to abandon them. The image is shocking in its casual insensitivity leading to the best song of the film, Easy to Be Hard, which Cheryl knocks out of the park. Forman adds a scene later with Cheryl joining the tribe and setting off to Nevada with them, but I think the film would have been better served keeping up the shallow cruelty of Hud rejecting and forgetting them as quick as one of George Berger’s quips. There is truth in that denial and neglect of responsibility. A truth that damned the hippy movement from the start, well, that and overuse of patchouli oil.
MGM presents Hair in an AVC MPEG-4 encoded 1.85.1 1080p widescreen running an average of 37Mbps, that generally looks all right and frequently looks pretty good. The optical printing process that used to be the standard procedure for superimposing titles over a film image tended to lock in dirt and print damage, but the opening of Hair is an extreme example. If I didn’t know any better I would think MGM deliberately sought out the grainiest, scratchiest transfer in the library for the title shots; even the colors are washed out and flat. After the title sequence, the video gets much better, but is still scarred with drop outs and scratches though out. The detail is good, even if the blacks are a bit crushed. The exterior shots, in particular in Central Park, are bright and rich with color without oversaturation.
The original six track 70mm audio is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD Lossless format. Although I found the surround a bit tinny and not quite immersive enough, the dialog played clear and music stayed well-balanced with surprisingly good bass response. It is unusual to find a 70s movie with such an effective use of a large soundscape.
Theatrical Trailer (2:45) HD That’s it, folks, unless you can count the menu and chapter selection as special features.
George Lucas was originally slated to direct Hair, but turned it down to develop American Graffiti (thank the gods), so in stepped Milos Forman. He brought a stark sensibility to the anti-war subtext and even kills off the most beloved character at the end ala R.P. McMurphy in his previous film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Although it was a bit lost in the cultural consciousness by being sandwiched between Cuckoo’s Nest and Forman’s next film, Amadeus, I thoroughly enjoyed Forman’s take on Hair. He made it his without patronizing the counterculture quirks. Also, this film is what I like to call a hard PG, with nudity, casual drug use and profanity. There is even a fun song about fellatio, cunnilingus and masturbation.
I watched this with my best friend, Sally, and she was moved to tears at the end, not by story or character death, but by remembering the promise of the hippy movement and its failure to deliver. Like Janus and Jimmy, the sixties set new standards and broke all the rules, but died tragically young, leaving behind the wreckage of untapped potential and a million broken promises. Hair the movie captures a little of that lightning in a bottle and, in spite of its upbeat intentions, breaks your heart at what might have been.
“The draft is white people sending black people to make war on the yellow people to defend the land they stole from the red people!”