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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Hair (1979)

Milos Forman, fresh off his Oscar-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, turned to another landmark work of the 1960s--Hair. The musical that had exploded on Broadway reached the screen, and most thought it wouldn't succeed, given that the musical itself was largely plotless, and the hippie era was over.

But Hair turned out to be a fine film. Granted, anyone who had seen and loved the stage show had to do some adjusting, as the movie was given a plot. The character of Claude Hooper Bukowski, who in the show was one of the hippies, is here transformed into a kid from Oklahoma arriving in New York to be join the army. He falls in with the hippies roaming through Central Park.

There are many other differences, with different characters singing songs ("Easy to Be Hard", which in the show was sung by Sheila to George Berger about his lack of affection, is in the film sung by Hud's fiancee, whom he abandoned, along with his son). But one must put all those things away and judge the film outside of the musical.

In that sense, Forman succeeds in capturing the nonconformist hippies, who ended up conforming to their own fashion and attitudes. Free love is apparent, as Jeannie (Annie Golden) is pregnant, but doesn't know who the father is. The only explicit drug use shown is an acid trip by Claude. In reality, kids were shooting up in parks in big cities all over the country.

The other great thing about the film is Forman's staging of the music, with choreography by Twyla Tharp. The opening, with Ren Woods singing "Age of Aquarius," the camera circling around her, is magnetic. In the film, Woof (Don Dacus) sings the title song, in a prison. Another highlight is "Ain't Got No," one of the fiercest songs in the show.

Where the film fails was felt by show creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado, who claimed that the film portrayed the hippies as aberrations, and not part of something larger (much is made of the contrast between them and rich people when they crash a party). Perhaps because Vietnam was a fading memory by 1979, there isn't too much about Vietnam, even though Claude is going to be shipped out there. Draft cards are burned, but the hippies are basically shown as kids who don't want to grow up, rather than serious or knowledgeable about world events.

The cast is great. John Savage is Claude, Dorsey Wright is Hud, Beverly D'Angelo is Sheila. But the true star of the film is Treat Williams as Berger. He has a lot to do in this film, singing most of Claude's songs from the stage show. He is charming and mischievous, and I would have fallen under his spell just like Claude did. Though he has steadily worked since then, I thought Williams would have become a bigger star.

Some songs didn't make the movie, such as "Air," "Frank Mills," "My Conviction," and the centerpiece of the stage show, "Happy Birthday, Abie Baby," which has a black Lincoln who is assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

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