Friday, June 18, 2010

Let the Sun Shine In

When Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoos's Nest) decided to make a film of the musical Hair in 1979, most people (myself included) thought, "It's too late." The play was more than ten years old, and the Hippie messages seemed irrelevant in the drug-and-disco-drenched '70s.

What a revelation. This movie has been waiting patiently for us to come back to it, and it has aged wonderfully, which is to say not at all. More than 30 years after its release (gasp!) its messages are just as important. We're stuck in another meat-grinder war, our country is bitterly divided, and the internet—for all its positive aspects—takes away the essential human connection. We could use a refresher course in peace, flowers, freedom and happiness.

I've seen it many times over the years, but I watched it in that newfangled HD last night and I couldn't believe how fresh and vibrant it still is. Original writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado loathed it, and purists complain about alterations in the story, but hey, folks—that's why it's called an "adaptation." Berger is now the leader of the group rather than Claude, Woof is no longer bisexual (although he admits he wouldn't kick Mick Jagger out of his bed), and Sheila is a debutante instead of a radical. Sometimes it's wise to stick to the original (as Tim Burton did with
Sweeney Todd), but Hair really needed more structure to work as a film. On stage, it's more like a revue, with the barest smattering of plot to string the songs together.

I always thought Milos Forman was an odd choice to direct, although he certainly did a wonderful job. As it turns out, it was a labor of love on his part. In 1967, Forman attended the very first preview of the play at the Public Theatre in 1967. He went backstage and told the authors he wanted to mount a production of their show in his native Prague, but the Soviets crushed the short-lived "Czech spring" before that could happen. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for the work never faded, and when Cuckoo's Nest made him a force to be reckoned with, he was allowed to lavish two years of production and 500,000 feet of film on his baby. As for the delay, Forman said, "Enough years have passed so we could avoid the tired rhetoric of those times and look back now with humor and understanding on what it was all about."

Great location shooting and Forman's European touch contribute immeasurably to the film's vitality. Good casting was extremely important, and the filmmakers assembled a truly sparkling troupe of actors, some just beginning their careers and two for whom Hair would represent their only film appearance. Everyone does their own singing, and it's great. Treat Williams as Berger projects the strong charisma that would make people fall for him—and they do. John Savage plays Claude Bukowski with a clenched jaw, making his transformation from moral, naive farmboy to demi-Hippie more dramatic. Beverly D'Angelo as rich girl Sheila Franklin brings a real warmth to her
role, and punk pioneer Annie Golden, as the pregnant Jeannie, plays goofy very well.

served as both the debut and swan song of guitarist and songwriter Don Dacus, who plays Woof. His fate is something of a mystery. He played with the bands Chicago and Badfinger and is said to have a role in "Cats" on Broadway in the '80s, but I can't confirm it. Dacus is on the far right in this photo of Badfinger. It was also the lone film appearance of Cheryl Barnes, who plays Hud's fiancee, although her singing career continued to flourish. Watch her stunning version of "Easy To Be Hard" from the film:

Twyla Tharp's avant-garde choreography works perfectly, and the scenes with crowds in movement are quite stunning. And thank God the filmmakers didn't "seventies" the music. At a time when disco godfather Giorgio Moroder was providing dance-oriented scores for films like Midnight Express and Foxes, the music in Hair has been allowed to retain its dignity, with original composer Galt McDermott merely speeding up some of the songs and giving them a more insistent rhythm, which works better with the visuals.

I loved Hair as a teenager, but I only knew it from the original cast recording and reading the play. I was almost in a production of it in South Bend, Indiana, at the long-gone but well-remembered Vegetable Buddies nightclub, but I moved to Los Angeles instead. So when the Met Theatre in Hollywood did a 40th anniversary staging of the play in 2007, I jumped at the chance to see it—twice, in fact. It was a marvelous production, and it gave me a chance to compare the experience to the film. They're very different animals, but I like them both.

I wish I could catch the Broadway revival (it closes next week), but the national tour is coming to the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood in January. I'm sure you'll find me in line there. And a nice widescreen version of the film is available on DVD from Amazon for only ten bucks. Get your copy today!

1 comment:

Russell Adams said...

Let us not forget the contributions, albeit small, of Nell Carter, Charlotte Rae, Melba Moore and Betty Buckley (voice only, Vietnamese girl, "Walking in Space").


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