Note: this review is based on a pre-release screener, which may or may not reflect the final retail version of this title.
William Goldman, the august screenwriter with an Oscar or two sitting on his mantle, also has written several fascinating non-fiction books detailing various insider information about sundried artistic genres. While his 1983 tome "Adventures in the Screen Trade" may be his most famous work to the general populace (at least the populace that visits sites about film), I personally recommend that anyone with any interest in showbiz generally and theater specifically check out his 1969 masterpiece, "The Season." This frightening, acerbic (and, yes, occasionally homophobic) look at the disastrous 1967-68 Broadway season will open your eyes about the ways shows got produced, at least back then, with several incredibly revealing chapters about the "powers that be" (or at least were) on Broadway. Goldman is nowhere more perceptive than in his analysis of the forces required to mount a successful Broadway musical. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee you can't name the most successful Broadway musical that opened that season, success being a relative term in this instance. It was the megaflop "Henry, Sweet Henry," based on The World of Henry Orient, a show that shuttered after just a few weeks and closed at a considerable loss. It was the "most successful" because it ran longer and lost less than any other Broadway musical opening that season. But the real success story that year, and one which Goldman chronicles the beginnings of, was an off-Broadway show which ultimately made the move to the Great White Way, ran for years, and just happened to change the Broadway musical forever in the process. I am of course talking about "Hair," that tribal love rock musical that proved full frontal nudity needn't necessarily negate a chorus kick line (OK, OK, "Hair" didn't have a kick line, at least that I remember).
Hair: Let the Sunshine In is a fascinating journey down memory lane with many of the people that created and performed in the musical, and becomes a document of a period of immense change and activism in America that may be more or less reflected in events happening again in the past year or so here (in fact, some of the footage is of anti-Bush rallies, redolent of the anti-Johnson and anti-Nixon rallies that dotted the late 60s and early 70s). There's a sort of symbiotic relationship between "Hair" and its epoch--the musical was at once a symptom of, and then became a bellwether for, a period in which long held beliefs were literally cascading by the wayside. The torch had definitely been passed to a new generation, who utilized it to light up a reefer and get to work.
This 55 minute documentary (too short, in my humble opinion) takes a perhaps wistful look back at a period when kids thought they could change the world, perhaps eliciting laughs from a now jaded audience. "Hair" cast member Keith Carradine readily admits how naive he was about the whole thing. But other cast members, including Ben Vereen and a still incredible looking Melba Moore, seem more reflective about how the show changed them. Melba famously took over the previously "white" role of Sheila (when original castmate Diane Keaton moved on to Woody Allen pursuits), breaking a sort of unspoken color barrier that paved the way for a generation of unusual casting choices (anyone remember the Jonathan Pryce brouhaha vis a vis "Miss Saigon"?).
Hair: Let the Sunshine In has a wealth of great archival footage, including several long snippets of the original cast performing (some of them from 1968 Smothers Brothers Show and Tonight Show appearances). This is mixed in with more general archival footage of the hirsute youth of the day protesting everything they could think of. While some of the footage is chronologically a little incorrect (Kent State was 1970, three years after "Hair" opened off-Broadway), it nonetheless gives a good tenor of the times.
What would have helped this piece a bit is added length, with some more in-depth analysis of what "Hair" meant for the public at large, and also how the sociopolitical (not to mention artistic and cultural) zeitgeist shifted dramatically by the time "Hair" was filmed in the late 1970s. (Director Milos Forman is one of the people who make up the bulk of the interview segments, and indeed the one extra on this screener is an additional hour of footage with him). While what is in the piece now is certainly compelling and always fun to watch, there's never any attempt made to really anchor "Hair" in the "silent majority," that is, away from the counterculture from which it sprang. I can clearly remember my mother's adamant refusal to let my eldest sister play the Original Cast Recording in our home while I was still a young kid, for example. That sort of "middle America" response would have helped give Hair: Let the Sunshine In a broader scope. There's also a lack of information imparted at times--for instance, what is up with the kids working with original director Tom O'Horgan just a couple of years ago, and then singing various songs in a sort of workshop and in a filmed segment in a park? I don't think O'Horgan directed any New York revival in the last few years, and a little more explication as to what this all was about would have helped. (A 2009 revival is about to open on Broadway, not helmed by O'Horgan).
"Hair" opened the way for everything from "Jesus Christ Superstar" to "Rent," and a slew of other shows that sought to mimic its rock patina without the genius of James Rado, Gerome Ragni and especially composer Galt McDermot to elevate their material. Hair: Let the Sunshine In does make a cogent case that this show was an unusual, and serendipitous, aligning of the cosmic creative forces that resulted in one of the most innovative and lasting contributions in the history of American musical theater. The full frontal nudity was just a bonus.