Be the Best Gravy You Can Be: 'The Wavy Gravy Movie: Saint Misbehavin'

Wavy Gravy emerges not only as a fascinating character, but as a powerful, inspiring, even heroic man. This is what the '60s always wanted to be about, but almost never were.

The Wavy Gravy Movie: Saint Misbehavin'

Director: Michelle Esrick
Cast: Wavy Gravy, Odetta, Jackson Browne, Ram Dass, Bob Weir
Distributor: Docurama
Rated: n/a
Year: 2009
Release date: 2011-11-15

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.







The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.