Milos Forman's film adaptation of Gerome Ragni and James Rado's groundbreaking rock musical Hair is a relic. And I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way. Fascinating and irreverent, it was already a relic when it came out in the spring of 1979. The original musical, which debuted off-Broadway in 1967 when the Age of Aquarius was genuinely dawning, is inextricably linked to the ethos of its era (that same year gave us the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park and the Monterey Pop Festival). Subtitled "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical," Hair is deeply embedded in a largely romanticized bubble of hippie culture, literally bursting at the seams with paeans to free love, the wonders of psychedelic drugs, and anti-war counterculturalism. When the musical debuted on stage, it was quite unlike anything that had been seen in the American theatre, but by the time Forman made his film adaptation a dozen years later, the counterculture was largely deflated and Ronald Reagan was only eight months away from announcing his era-defining run for President. Hippies, by the end of the '70s, had become a punchline.
But that didn't stop Forman and first-time screenwriter Michael Weller (Ragtime, Lost Angels) from bringing Hair to the big screen as a kind of nostalgic romp through the spirit of a different era. Weller changed so much of the original musical (including major character shifts, wholesale creation of new plotlines, and rearrangement of virtually all the songs) that Ragni and Rado essentially disowned the film; however, many of the changes are understandable, especially taking one of the central hippie characters and turning him into a Midwestern square on his way to enlist in the Army. For Ragni and Rado, hippie culture was alive and thriving and central to the American experience in the mid-'60s, but by the time the film was conceived, that same culture had to be viewed to a large extent through the rearview mirror.
The story opens with Claude (John Savage), a quiet young man from Oklahoma boarding a bus to see New York City for a few days before enlisting in the army and being sent to Vietnam. As soon as he arrives in the Big Apple, he crosses paths with a "tribe" of hippies living in Central Park. The tribe's leader, Berger (Treat Williams), is as outspoken, brash, and liberated as Claude is quiet and repressed, and it is no big surprise that the latter is lured by the former into experimenting with alternate lifestyles and kicking his rural, conservative predispositions to the curb. Over a few days, Claude finds himself being drawn into Berger's tribe, which also includes Jeannie (Annie Golden), a young woman who is pregnant by either Berger or Hud (Dorsey Wright), the group's militant black member, and Woof (Don Dacus), who is golden-haired and airy. At the same time Claude meets Berger and the tribe, he also meets Sheila (Beverly D'Angelo), a beautiful debutant from a super-rich family who is already itching to rebel (we see her smoking pot in her bedroom before going down a fancy dinner party thrown by her father, which Berger and the tribe summarily crash).
The second half of the film switches from New York to the Nevada desert where Claude goes for basic training. Berger and the tribe, with Sheila in tow, end up driving 2,000 miles to visit him, which requires a complex scheme in which Berger disguises himself as a soldier and temporarily takes Claude's place in the barracks so Claude can sneak away to see his newfound friends. The arid desolation of the desert provides an almost shocking visual shift from the multicolor energy and vibrance of the big city and underscores the film's view of the soullessness of military life, which is best embodied in a grinning, absurd general played by the once-great director Nicholas Ray, who had fallen long and hard since his peak in the 1950s with In a Lonely Place (1950), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and Bigger Than Life (1956) (he died a few months after the film's premiere). The plot here gets stretched pretty thin, and the suspension of disbelief required to buy the idea that Berger could literally take Claude's place without anyone noticing or saying a word is a bit much (although it does play into the critique of the military's fundamental dehumanization of soldiers, turning individuals into interchangeable killing machines). Hair was a rare American film to even speak of Vietnam at the time-prior we had The Boys in Company C (1978) and The Deer Hunter (1978) and not much else-which adds an element of daring to its otherwise nostalgic reverence for the counterculture.
Of course, that reverence can be a bit heavy-handed at times, and while Hair is frequently enthralling and fun and filled with energy, it doesn't always work as well as it wants to. Some of the musical's dated daring doesn't play all that well today, particularly the film's second number, "Sodomy," which is just a musical listing of provocative sexual acts. It is fundamentally juvenile in its audaciousness, but you can't help but shudder when "pederasty" is casually thrown in along with "fellatio" and "cunnilingus" as just another free-love sex act. The opening number, the quintessential hippie anthem "Aquarius," gets the film off to a rollicking start; the choreography by Twyla Tharp, who would go on to work with Forman on both Ragtime (1982) and Amadeus (1984), is one of the film's strongest assets. It generates a sense of energy and momentum that the rest of the film can't quite sustain. The title tune "Hair," which is inexplicably set in a prison, is also quite good, as is the ode to interracial love, "Black Boys/White Boys." The most powerful musical number, though, is "Easy to Be Hard" by Cheryl Barnes, who plays Hud's deserted fiance. Her lamentation of casual human cruelty is conveyed almost entirely through a static close-up, and it is the film's one conceit to the idea that much of the counterculture was fundamentally myopic, so inwardly focused on its own self-guided liberation that it failed to expand beyond its own bubble and, worse, left many people broken and abused in its wake. The fact that Hud's fiance doesn't even have a name and is eventually conscripted into the tribe along with her and Hud's young son suggests that the film isn't all that interested in interrogating such discrepancies, although credit should be given for having raised them at all.
Director Milos Forman, having triumphantly swept the Oscars four years earlier with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), had always been a rebel at heart, drawn to determined outsiders who refused to play by others' rules. Even in his native Czechoslovakia, when the Soviets were bringing down the full force of communist doctrine, he was getting away with sly political satires like The Fireman's Ball (1967). Forman was often at his best when satirizing conformity, although such satire can often come across as smug and self-serving. There is some of that in Hair, to be sure, but it has enough vigor and raucousness to carry it past its various pitfalls while celebrating an age that, far from dawning, had already passed.
Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Olive Films
Overall Rating: (3)
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