Jul 8, 2020

On Blu-ray: Milos Forman's Giddy, Energetic Hair (1979)

When I was a kid, I used to love listening to my dad’s records. While he favored jazz, there were other things in the mix, like 60s rock, soundtracks and a few other pop culture touchstones, and that included the original Broadway cast recording of Gerome Ragni and James Rado's Hair. I don’t know what inspired 12-year-old me to listen to it, but I immediately loved the catchy, high energy songs. In the decades to follow I would realize how influential those tunes had been as I found them covered many times across different genres.

In all those years I never got around to seeing Hair on the stage or watching the 1979 film production directed by Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [1975]). A new Blu-ray release of the movie from Olive Films helped me to rectify that. While I enjoyed the film, I was left with a dramatically different feeling than I got from the record I adored as a child.

The story of a band of hippies grasping at the joys of life while dodging the draft for the controversial Vietnam War was a good fit for Forman. As a Czechoslovakian exile, he knew plenty about social upheaval. There’s a wealth of special features on the disc, including several short featurettes about various aspects of the production and a charming audio commentary by assistant director Michael Housman and lead Treat Williams and all point to Forman’s positive, open-minded approach to the film. In mixing established talents with less experienced performers and creating a positive, nurturing environment for all, he consequently embraced the revolutionary feel of the production.

Treat Williams, John Savage and Beverly D’Angelo lead a charismatic cast of characters through energetic renditions of the show’s lively tunes. The staging of songs as varied as “Hair,” “Where Do I Go,” and “I Got Life” is greatly helped by Twyla Tharp's innovative choreography. She worked well with a mix of dancers from her troupe and non-dancers cast for the film to build a mood of spontaneous energy that feels organic to both location and set-bound surroundings. That pulsing vibe is punctuated with stand-out vocal performances by Cheryl Barnes and Nell Carter who lend little bursts of star power to an essentially communal production.

1979 was a decade away from the times reflected in the original off and then on Broadway musical. While the stage production reflected the fury and passion of a movement in progress, Forman’s film found more whimsy in the hippy dippy lifestyle. That feeling is in opposition to the intensity of early stage productions which you can see in this performance from the 1969 Tony awards ceremony. The performances in this medley of songs from the show are grittier, funkier, and full of revolutionary fury. This is a unified group of young people who are rebelling because they believe in a better system and a brighter future. That’s a big contrast to the frolicking fun in the park that characterizes much of Forman’s film.

This is not to say that the adaptation doesn’t have its own powerful feeling of rebellion. It isn’t just sex, drugs, and play for Williams and his merry band of freaks. In an acid trip dream sequence that could only happen in a film, Forman with his own understanding of society in upheaval creates a tableau of giddy surreal happenings in which a pregnant Beverly d’Angelo soaring elegantly through the air is only a small part of the wildness.

Slightly removed from the times it reflected, Forman’s vision is in many ways removed from the show’s original feeling, but that distance gives it a timeless feel. It isn't just a comment on the past; it also draws out the core values in its revolutionary message which lit the fire in the first place.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

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