By the late ‘50s, Hugh Romney was a Greenwich Village poet, actor, and comedian. He ran with the artists emerging from that heady proto-hippie scene, befriending burgeoning stars like Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, and Odetta, and appears to have been a key figure in the development of that influential little cosmos. But when Romney, an ex-military man and increasingly dreamy mystic, travelled to San Francisco in 1962 to record an album – after his new manager, Lenny Bruce, set it all up – he found himself seduced by the left coast. So he stayed, and the rest is certainly history.
By 1966 he was running with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, setting up the Hog Farm (a commune outside of Los Angeles which also developed those famous light shows for rock bands like the Grateful Dead and the Jimi Hendrix Experience). Radicalised by the Berkeley Free Speech movement and the horror of the ongoing American War in Vietnam, Romney became a front line activist and was severely injured in repeated altercations with riot police.
But perhaps his most famous contribution was when the Hog Farm crossed the country, Prankster-style, for the Woodstock music festival in 1969 where they’d been asked to run “security” (which they took to mean providing food, shelter, and medical aid). Into the ‘70s and beyond, while most of those 400,000 or so hip kids from Max Yasger’s muddy fields bled into the mainstream of American life, Romney kept pushing for social justice, for independence, for joy, for the liberating pleasure of the absurd. In surprising ways, the whole kaleidoscopic tangle of narratives that is the “American Counterculture” wraps around this one man’s life.
You’ve probably never heard of Hugh Romney. Almost no one has; or, if they have, then they’ve forgotten. This is because “Hugh Romney” was reborn in 1969 – renamed, “christened”, identified – when blues legend B. B. King randomly addressed him as Wavy Gravy. Nonsensical, ridiculous, surreal, and entirely of the psychedelic moment, Romney looked at the man and agreed. Yep, that’s me. From then on, Wavy Gravy became a moniker, a handle, but also a motivating force in Romney’s life. It provided him, a wandering hippie with a gentle and benevolent spirit, with a purpose. His daily prayer (to virtually every deity one might name since he believes in all and none of them simultaneously) is that he might “be the best Wavy Gravy I can muster.”
This charming and surprisingly moving documentary seeks to examine just what that might mean. In some ways a standard biographical film – it’s told in chronological order through recollection, found film, archival footage, and anecdotes – there is an appropriate zaniness that colours every tale, every revelation. Early in the movie we watch as a 60-something Gravy completely (and hilariously) fails to make dinner as his wife gently chastises him. It’s simultaneously bizarre – who doesn’t know how to cook frozen vegetables? – and revealing.
Maybe the reason this oddball dreamer has been so successful at changing people’s lives, and shifting the way we look at the world they inhabit, is that he himself is incapable of ‘normal life’. Though he is a man who threw himself on the gears of the machine in the anti-war ‘60s, who spearheaded much environmental activism in the chemical-drenched ‘70s, who battled the nuclear power industry in the Reagan-dosed ‘80s, and who has since worked to raise thousands of dollars for thousands of cornea transplants in developing nations through his Seva Foundation, and has founded a carnival-themed summer camp for a diversity of American children (Camp Winnarainbow), though he has accomplished all of this, the man can’t cook peas.
In director Michelle Esrick’s hands, Wavy Gravy emerges not only as a fascinating character, but as a powerful, inspiring, even heroic figure. Though some will perhaps dismiss the film as a bit of hippie hagiography (and the title doesn’t exactly try to push you from this interpretation), if you are open to the possibility that this demented cherub with his tie dye and his clown paint might just be worth spending 90 minutes with, I am here to tell you that you will find it tough to come away unmoved by his accomplishments, by his day-glo spirit. This is what the ‘60s always wanted to be about, but almost never were. You may just find yourself praying to him every morning.
Extras on this DVD are all worthwhile (if perfunctory), including a music video of Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Weir singing Wavy Gravy’s song “Basic Human Needs”, and almost an hour of bonus footage.