[From the STMcC archive; written September 29, 2006.]
This resurrected review is now being dedicated to my friend "THE SHREDDER".
I still remember the moment clearly: It was one day, probably in “The Summer Of Love” (1967), I was eight years old and my Mother was behind the wheel as we turned a corner in Garden Grove, California. Referring to a group of colorful, flowing Flower Children on the corner, waiting for the light to change (second-rate rebels!), I asked, “What are those people, Mom?” Her reply was the first time I’d ever encountered the term hippie. A couple of years later, I would be dressing just like them – Keith Partridge and Greg Brady had nothing on me! (I still have the original patches from my denim jacket: the Yellow Smiley Face; the star-spangled hand forming the Peace Sign; Have A Nice Day; Come Together, etc.)
The one thing that nearly every big city American who came-of-age in the 1960s and ‘70s has in common is the LP soundtrack from the Broadway musical, HAIR. That “Licorice Pizza” (LP) with its green and red cover was in everyone’s collection. Mine spent a lot of time on the turntable.
In 1979, Milos Forman – unquestionably one of cinema’s most talented directors – only four years removed from his monumental, 5 Academy Awards-winning achievement, 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest', decided to put the old 1960s icon, HAIR, onto the silver screen. It went mostly unnoticed. The old hippies were now too respectable and forward-thinking in their three-piece suits and plush offices to look back at their past, and the kids had shaved heads and the loud, lean sound of Punk Rock on their minds. Hair? Nobody wore it. Nobody saw it. Too bad.
In a sense, the entire movie is almost like an LSD hallucination. HAIR opens with peaceful shots of a green, pastoral Oklahoma landscape and a son and his dad attempting, in their painfully rigid way, to express their mutual affection before the young man, Claude Bukowski (John Savage), boards a bus for New York City to answer Uncle Sam’s draft notice for an adventure in Vietnam. The old man says, “Don’t worry too much. It’s just these smart people that’s got to worry. The Lord will take care of the ignorant ones.” Soon the screen explodes into Free Love and Psychedelia, but at the end of the picture, the old man’s joke is revealed to have been weirdly prophetic.
[An aside: This has no bearing on anything, but numerous times in the past, Yours Truly was told that he looked nearly identical to John Savage. I always shrugged it off until one day in 1981, Savage’s own best friend, actor Charles Haid, told me the same thing. Then I knew it to be true. Now you know: this reviewer looks like a Savage.]
[John Savage then, and . . . ]
[. . . Later.]
In New York’s Central Park, Claude meets up with a band of hippies led by George Berger (Treat Williams). There are a couple of nifty performances in HAIR: Savage with his hangdog, fish-out-of-water country reticence; Annie Golden as the screen’s most likeable little airhead since Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday; and Miles Chapin as Steve, the put upon “proper” product of old school traditionalism. But unarguably, HAIR belongs to Treat Williams.
Very rarely does an actor just light up the screen with “presence.” James Dean did it in 'East Of Eden' in 1955. Girls in the theatres began screaming the moment he appeared on screen, inexplicably drawn, no doubt, to the brooding intensity of his animal magnetism. In recent times, Val Kilmer playing Doc Holliday in 'Tombstone' stole every single scene he appeared in with the power of his charisma. (Many would put Brando’s portrayal of Stanley Kowalski in 'A Streetcar Named Desire' in this class, though I found it too mannered to believe.) There have been a few others, Treat Williams in HAIR amongst them.
When I first saw this movie in the theatre, I labeled Williams a can’t-miss soon-to-be superstar. Though his work in 'Prince Of The City' was highly acclaimed, somehow Williams whiffed. I thought Kenneth Branagh’s performance in 'Dead Again' was going to propel him to megastar status, too. (Remind me of these misjudgments the next time I tell you that I’m never wrong.) It’s the ultra-cool confidence and dynamic presence Williams exudes that carries this movie and keeps it moving. He is the follicle of HAIR. (I’m sorry! I really can’t help myself.)
Although Forman ultimately comes down on the side of the Hippie Movement, he takes jabs at, and also embraces, different aspects of the two social armies engaged in a cultural war that took place at home concurrent with an American “police action” on another continent. And Berger, despite his narcissism and hedonism (the real foundation of the counterculture) which often antagonizes the “authorities” and widens the Generation Gap, is also the peacemaker who can empathize with others and effect a reconciliation. He’s a complex, interesting character and worthy of deep analysis.
There are a few abysmal songs to be found in HAIR, but also some real winners. Most notably, 'Where Do I Go?' (with poor lip-synching from Savage), 'Good Morning Starshine' (For me, Oliver’s #3 hit version from 1969 captures this era like no other song), and especially 'Easy To Be Hard'. This last one anchors a brilliant segment in which Forman’s extraordinary directorial skills are on display. 'Easy To Be Hard' (an outrageously powerful performance by Cheryl Barnes and alone worth the price of the soundtrack) is an exceptional piece in which hippie Lafayette’s cold distance toward his girlfriend is expressed in snowy long shots of him walking away from her and into the city. This is contrasted with close-up shots of her singing, signifying the fullness of the heartrending emotional wound he has inflicted upon her. If this scene doesn’t give you a little chill, you’re a mighty chilly person, friend.
There are several other memorable scenes in HAIR: Though I don’t approve of nudity in movies and I hardly needed to see chunky Beverly D’Angelo sans the costumer’s art, if that bit where she hails a taxi in Central Park doesn’t make you laugh, check for a pulse! And I’m as “straight” as the term gets, but if the Black Boys / White Boys segment with the Army’s induction board doesn’t at least elicit a smile from you, you’re definitely wound a little too tight. Berger’s brief visit with the folks back home is a gem (with a delightful cameo by Antonia Rey playing his mom). And then there’s that surprise ending with its growing sense of claustrophobia and impending doom swallowing up the helpless George Berger – another example of Forman’s artistic vision brilliantly executed.
There is plenty to like about this movie, and it certainly beats the vast majority of what is being produced today. HAIR is a strange “trip”, but one that is worth taking.
~ Stephen T. McCarthy