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Critics often lament the demise of the movie western in the 1970s, but the real M.I.A. genre was the original Hollywood Musical. With the exception of occasional stage adaptations, movies about performers, and rock freak-outs like Tommy, traditional movie musicals seemed long gone. Things became so dire that when the authentic old-fashioned MGM talent Bobby Van performed a little song 'n' dance in Ross Hunter's DOA groaner Lost Horizon, audiences applauded: "Look, there's somebody with talent!"
That makes 1979's Hair something of a standout. Although based on the controversial 1968 "American Tribal Love-Rock Musical", Milos Forman and writer Michael Weller reorganized and rewrote enough of the show so that theatergoers would hardly recognize it. With a group of gung-ho actors, choreography by Twyla Tharp and fine cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek, this rethought musical can almost be classified as a film original. There are plenty of rough spots, and it goes without saying that the stage originators weren't impressed (they did take the money). But Forman and company achieve what many thought was impossible -- their movie communicates the freaky counterculture anti-war vibe of the late 1960s and doesn't humiliate itself.
The stage play doesn't have a story per se, and the characters are defined almost exclusively in song. Forman's movie expands the show in all directions, and does indeed shift it somewhat toward mainstream tastes.. Arriving in New York for induction into the army, Oklahoma boy Claude Bukowski (John Savage) falls in with a group of pan-handling hippies in Central Park: irrepressible leader George Berger (Treat Williams), pregnant flower child Jeannie Ryan (Annie Golden), long-haired Woof (Don Dacus) and black hipster Hud (Dorsey Wright). When Claude falls in love with socialite Sheila Franklin (Beverly D'Angelo), the group helps him win her by crashing a debutante party. Claude sleeps in the park, gets arrested, drops acid and bonds with his new 'tribe'. When he ships out to a training center in Nevada, the group follows with Sheila. The plan is to sneak on base to let Sheila and Claude get together before his unit leaves for Vietnam.
A quick explanation of the differences between the stage Hair and the movie can be found at a convenient and hopefully accurate Wikipedia page; what's interesting are the disconnects left over after the re-shuffling of the characters and plot -- the lost reference in the song "Manchester", for instance. The play was about anti-war activism almost exclusively, and the movie spreads itself out to include Middle America (Claude now a cowboy) and class snobbery (Sheila is now a daughter of the rich). Jeannie's unborn child, once fathered by an unknown stranger, is now either Woof's white baby or Hud's "chocolate brown" baby.
We can understand the original authors not liking the introduction of more mainstream themes. The songs with all the taboo words are still there, but "Easy to Be Hard" has changed function completely. Once Sheila's lament that war activist Claude saves his energies for "the bleeding crowd", the song now frames Hud's fianceé (Cheryl Barnes) protest that the man she knows as Lafayette has abandoned his baby and wife-to-be. The scene is perhaps the most emotional in the movie, and the most averse to the original play's radical slant. Jeannie is unconcerned about the future of her baby, and Woof and Hud just seem to be hanging around waiting to see who's the father. But the movie stresses that the 'tribe' needs to accept its responsibilities as would any normal family.
These new humanist angles make Hair more accessible even as they go against the grain of the original concept. The play was shock theater, a pro-free love, pro-drug, anti-Flag gauntlet to L.B.J.'s war complete with on-stage nudity. Just ten years later it was already an artifact of the idealistic flower-power movement that existed for a brief moment before being gobbled up by the consumer culture. Big city audiences could attend stage performances of Hair as a trendy activity; the curious in smaller towns got cover versions of the less controversial songs on the A.M. radio, with sanitized lyrics.
The movie is of course a different animal; by 1979 Woodstock had to be re-explained to the mass audience. Hair doesn't need to explain what the Vietnam war is or what draft card burning means, but it augments many of the songs with marvelous Twyla Tharp choreography and clever physical effects. "Aquarius" achieves majesty with a love-in dance in central park. Police horses join in the fun. The acid trip song ("Hare Krishna", at least partially) is now a surreal spectacle in a cathedral, with dancing women incarnating ancient goddesses and mime-dancers "walking" through the air in a delightful stage effect. Claude imagines Sheila as a grossly pregnant bride, flapping her arms like a duck and flying as well.
We're told that the on-stage nudity came during a curtain number, and it was always voluntary. The movie has the intrepid group of dropouts take a midnight skinny dip in Central Park. The funny musical numbers about the hi-jinks at the induction center -- with a row of black officers singing in harmony as they inspect the naked draftees -- are either liberating or in bad taste, depending on one's outlook. Times have certainly changed, as the movie received a "PG" rating. I don't think that conservatives noticed enough to protest, as the movie isn't the type to be endorsed in Bible study groups. That was 32 years ago, of course. With the country congealing into a conservative funk, Hair now seems more radical than ever.
The new plot finds its ending through an ironic switcheroo at the training base after a few minutes of fairly restrained criticism of the Army. Sheila's not-so-consistent debutante dropout has gone naked in the middle of New York, purloined a car and now seduces a hard-luck soldier (Richard Bright) to enable Claude to make love before he jets off to the presumed oblivion of Vietnam. Veteran director Nicholas Ray pulled himself together to play the crusty general, but besides the machine-gunning of a loudspeaker playing rock music, little attempt is made to ridicule the services. Hair instead ends with the cinematic equivalent of a curtain number, as our new tribal family gathers around a military grave and thousands of hippies protest outside the White House, waving flags and singing songs. We can become nostalgic for the idealistic spirit felt at the time, even if it never got farther than a dream. The entertaining Hair may not be the original rock 'n' roll "F___ Y___" to the war that the play was, but it can stand on its own merits.
By the time Hair was released John Savage was already famous for his role in The Deer Hunter, but this was the talented Treat Williams' big break. It was also a big step for Beverly D'Angelo -- this show and her stint as Patsy Cline in the next year's Coal Miner's Daughter seem to be what put her career into a winning groove. Singer Annie Golden has the perfect clueless/sensitive look for a gum-chewing vagabond; 1. Milos Forman rehired Dorsey Wright for a small part in his next movie, Ragtime and singer-songwriter Don Dacus was known at the time as a member of Chicago.
MGM/Fox's Blu-ray of Hair is a very good rendition of this bouncy, joyous musical. Miroslav Ondricek's cinematography captures the fancy Tharp dancing as well as Treat Williams' wild movements, and does quite a bit to tie together the string of repurposed song hits. The good encoding also renders the film's interesting cutting patterns to their best effect -- I like the editing here (Stanley Warnow, Alan Heim) better than the show-off pyrotechnics in the later All That Jazz.
In keeping with the no-frills spirit of MGM's latest library Blu-ray offerings, Hair comes with the excellent original trailer as its only extra. Like every other trailer in 1979, the title treatment is given a motion-control modified swoosh effect as wow'ed audiences in the previous year's Superman, The Movie. If you're a psycho and want a creative idea for torturing a reactionary conservative, just leave your captive tied up and watching this BD disc of Hair: it has no menu, and will simply repeat the feature ad infinitum, until his brain is reduced to quivering jelly.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hair Blu-ray rates:
1. I'm a huge fan of a stirring song Annie Golden performs in the otherwise unwatchable feature cartoon The Pebble and the Penguin: "Sometimes I Wonder (reprise)". Horror of horrors, it was co-written by Barry Manilow, and good for him. Love that song and especially Ms. Golden's voice.
2. A heap of welcome correctin' from "B" because I didn't properly assign credit (6.18.11):
Dear Glenn: Go back. Credit where credit is due. Hair is a musical play with book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado and music by Galt MacDermott. It may have been transformed into, well, something else for the screen by Forman and his writer Michael Weller (who, incredibly, after this* was allowed to script Ragtime), but much of what's there was created whole cloth by Ragni and Rado, and their names appear nowhere in your review.
[For that matter, MacDermott receives credit for "original music" in your credit block. I dunno how much original music there is in the picture; I think almost all of it is from the show, though MacDermott did supervise, arrange and conduct the film's score.]
It's not for nothin' that UA let the authors have possessive credit on the movie. These guys may not seem like Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Loewe, but for one brief shining moment in the American theater -- and on the pop charts -- they ruled. Best, Always -- B.
* I assume Weller is the idiot who decided, "Let's set the 'Good Morning, Starshine' number in daylight." I have no words. [I do very much like the film, though. I am, predictably, a big fan of the show and could probably sing every note of the score in the shower. We enjoyed the recent Broadway revival.]
3. More credits and BTS info, from reader Tony Dale (6.19.11):
Mustn't forget to credit the wonderful use of Broadway talents in the "Black Boys/White Boys" numbers: Charlaine Woodard and Nell Carter (who were appearing on Broadway at the time in Fats Waller's Ain't Misbehavin'; Ellen Foley (Pirates of Penzance, Into the Woods (workshop), MeatLoaf - yes, that MeatLoaf)!, Laurie Beechman - soon to appear in Joseph/Technicolor Dreamcoat and Cats - she also appears in the "Old Fashioned Melody" segment; Charlotte Rae (many NYC theater credits including Three Penny Opera, but best known, of course for The Facts of Life) whose song "My Conviction" was recorded, but cut - she's still funny in her pink dress in the party sequence of "I Got Life;" Purlie's Melba Moore in "9-5-0-0" and finally, Betty Buckley (Cats, Carrie, Eight is Enough, Triumph of Love, Sunset Blvd., 1776) as the voice of the Vietnamese girl in "Walking in Space."
The voice of the black recruiters, looking at the soon to be Broadway favorite (and Evening Star scene stealer) Michael Jeter, is the pop group The Four Tops, featuring Little Shop of Horrors's Levi Stubbs. A lot going on behind the scenes and score of Hair.
A true-blue fan of Hair on stage and film -- Tony Dale
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2010 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.