Program Notes: Hair (1979)
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Watching Hair today constitutes a weird sort of time travel.
After all, we’re seeing in 2012 the 1979 film version of a hit musical from 1967.
By the time Milos Forman made his movie of the Gerome Ragni/Galt MacDermot hit more than a decade had passed. Flower Power and war protests were ancient history. Conservative Ronald Reagan would soon beat Jimmy Carter to occupy the White House. The “me” generation was interested in social status, not social justice.
And yet the memorable songs, innocent optimism and cheeky irreverence of Hair still worked in ’79. And they still do today.
As a movie Hair isn’t an unqualified success, but it is highly entertaining, nicely recreating the giddy intoxication of those days of love and peace. And it can still raise hackles in some quarters with its ridiculing of motherhood, the flag, and the work ethic.
Granted, the promise of that nebulous creature called “the movement” was never realized, but Hair captures the feeling and spirit of an America caught in the currents of change.
The stage show was less a play proper than a series of iconoclastic musical sketches.
So screenwriter Michael Weller invented a more solid plot with just enough situations to give it momentum and provide plenty of opportunities to work in the music.
The time is the late’60s. Claude (John Savage), an Oklahoma farm boy, is wandering about Manhattan on his last two days of freedom before being inducted into the Army. Walking through Central Park he stumbles across a colorful tribe of feathered, furry creatures whose sacrament is marijuana and whose credo is “Spare change?”
For a kid used to horses and hay, these fun-loving rowdies are a revelation. Claude falls in with them and is befriended by their nominal leader, Berger (Treat Williams).
Berger is a kind of human puppy, a big-hearted hippie con artist who can talk anybody into just about anything.
When Claude is smitten with Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), a gorgeous debutante he meets in the park, it is Berger who takes the tribe to the ‘burbs to crash the pretty young thing’s coming-out party, going so far as to do a dance on the dining room table to the horror of the tuxedoed crowd.
Several adventures later Claude finds himself in uniform and awaiting his orders for ‘Nam. Just before the big airlift, who should come gallumping to his aid but his personal hippie rescue team?
That’s about as much plot as Hair has. It’s how Forman fills his big screen that is the film’s strength. In particular the first half of the film – with its Central Park setting and freewheeling, kaleidoscopic choreography by Twyla Tharp – captures the essence of the whole drop out, turn on scene.
Among the highlights:
— Berger’s table-top antics at the debutante party. Wonderfully nihilistic.
— Claude’s first acid trip. He envisions his marriage to a pregnant Shiela in a huge, smoky cathedral where the wedding party inexplicably floats toward the arched ceiling and a Hindu fertility goddess performs a suggestive dance.
— The musical number “Black Boys/White Boys.” Women on the street and Army induction officials sing the varied praises of those young men. It’s wickedly funny.
The film does run down toward the end when the setting shifts from the Never Never Land of hippiedom to the all-too-real environment of an Army base. And after bringing its audience down to earth with a preachy montage of basic training moments, Hair then bestows highly unlikely fates on Berger and Claude.
Presumably this is meant to be symbolic. It doesn’t really work, but by this time Hair has us on its wavelength.
Other films in the series “Mondays with Milos”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- September 10: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Rated R
- September 17: Ragtime (1981) Rated PG
- September 24: Hair (1979) Rated PG
- October 1: Amadeus (1984) Rated PG
- October 8: The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) Rated R
- October 15: Loves of a Blonde (1965) Not Rated
- October 22: Man on the Moon (1999) Rated R
- October 29: Goya’s Ghosts (2006) Rated R
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.