John Savage, Treat Williams, Beverly D'Angelo, Annie Golden, Dorsey Wright, Don Dacus
(MGM; US DVD: 7 Jun 2011 (General release))
It remains a stunning Broadway anomaly, a show that shouldn’t have worked in an era and arena not known for taking this kind of creative risk. Sure, the musical had made its way from standard revue to rewritten comedy over the last century, but few along the Great White Way were prepared to adopt the counterculture conceits of peace, love, and freedom as the foundation for an experimental song cycle/rock opera happening. While the promise of nudity was its initial shock value selling point, Hair went on to become a landmark in theater for several solid reasons: it had great music (by lyricists/actors James Rado and Gerome Ragni and composer Galt MacDermot), an even greater message, and a means of making the whole thing feel fresh, vibrant, and new.
Fast forward 11 years, and clear eyed chronicler of the American experience, Czechoslovakian director Milos Forman, wanted to make this sonic tour de force his first post-Oscar endeavor. Having come to the United States to flee the Communist invasion of his homeland in 1968, the filmmaker quickly established his credentials by leading Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to Academy Award winning glory. Proving he could handle difficult material, he was given the greenlight to bring the infamous show to the silver screen. While it would not be easy, and garner less than favorable critiques from its creators, Hair (new to Blu-ray from MGM) holds up. Four decades plus removed from its first staging, and 32 years after its release in theaters, what lingers is as legitimate as any concerns over dated or ill-defined elements.
The main narrative centers on the Summer of Love in New York City and a group of hippies - George Berger (Treat Williams), Woof Daschund (Don Dacus), Jeannie Ryan (Annie Golden), and LaFayette “Hud” Johnson (Dorsey Wright) who meet up with and “adopt” a draftee from Oklahoma named Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage). Hoping to show him a good time before he heads off to Vietnam (and perhaps, convince him to avoid service all together), they focus their sights on drugs, a snooty society girl named Sheila Franklin (Beverly D’Angelo), and shaking up the resident squares. Over the course of his time with the free spirits, Claude learns to appreciate life. He also will not shirk his duty. Sent to training in Nevada, Berger and the gang follow suit. Through a series of mix ups, Claude and his newfound friend change places. He ends up staying back home, while Berger is unceremoniously sent off to fight.
Hair is very good indeed. It is also hamstrung by a couple of elements outside its control. In 1979, few were waving the freak flag in celebration of brazen anti-war sentiment. In fact, Hollywood had just started to embrace the realities of our ‘police action’ in Asia, and they weren’t quite ready for the Evil Establishment position taken by the show. So when Forman released this likable sonic attack, it seemed shocking and quite contemporary. Now, it’s all antiquated and old-fashioned, protest having long given way to ennui and self-absorbed satisfaction. Few in the post-millennial audience will connect with a group of people who want little more out of life than to live free and love. Instead, as the ‘60s has been strip mined of all its nostalgic value, Hair now comes across as an artifact with good music and a less than meaningful significance.
The second issue is even more complicated. Like any medium to movie translation, Hair was truncated, twisted, rewritten, and reconfigured for the big screen. Forman was out to make a statement about the power inherent in the people, about standing up to society (as represented by Sheila and her ilk) and making democracy actually mean something. Coming from where he did, it made perfect sense. You can’t live under dictatorships and totalitarian rule and not worship the way America (supposedly) functions. As a director, Forman may have gone overboard in this aspect. None of the counterculture’s downsides are suggested here. Berger and his bunch are just fun-loving, freewheeling types who grab life by the scruff and wring out every ounce of vitality they can. Their naiveté is never challenged or rebuffed.
In taking this approach, Forman cut songs, changed others, rewrote the storyline (not that Hair had much of a plot to begin with), and, in essence, turned the material into his own interpretation of same. Similar to how Stanley Kubrick handled The Shining, this can be seen as one visionary invoking another to achieve a certain set of aesthetic aims. It does work. albeit in a way that will make purists balk in disapproval, which is odd, when you consider that, up until the recent revival and road show tour, few actually knew what Hair was about. They knew the songs - classics like “Aquarius,” “Let the Sunshine In,” “Good Morning, Starshine,” and the title track. They were part of late ‘60s/early ‘70s AM radio. But many were unaware of its oddball narrative approach and equally ethereal means of getting its point across.
None of that really matters here. Forman’s Hair spoon-feeds us the feeling of 1968, and we couldn’t be happier. This is a joyful noise, a combination of terrific music and equally electrifying filmmaking that walks the frequently fine line between classic and camp. Williams is wonderful as Berger, his shaggy mane charisma carrying through the occasional rough patch. Equally impressive is D’Angelo who has the debutante goddess thing down pat. Toss in terrific work from the rest of the cast and some of the best dance choreography ever (created by one of the true geniuses of post-modern movement, Twyla Tharp) and you’ve got a complicated backstory that wins us over via what’s actually up on the screen. While the new Blu-ray release offers no added content to explain what happened, the image and audio save the digital update day.
As with so many other media milestones, Hair needs the context of its times to truly resonate. It works as a look back, but some will see it as nothing but nostalgia. On the other hand, as part of his period dissection of his adopted homeland, Forman serves the ‘60s well. As he would do with the earlier part of the era (Cuckoo’s Nest), the ‘70s/‘80s (The People vs. Larry Flint), and the turn of the century (Ragtime),he found the core conceit in a time exploding with possibilities. Without a doubt, the stage version of this seminal work remains steadfastly in its place. Luckily, Forman’s Hair can be enjoyed in any era..with a few complicated caveats.