For Broadway in 1967, it seemed like a breath of fresh Hair. The mixture of pop rock songs and an all-nude first-act finale, of laid-back layabouts and raw theatrical energy, of four-letter words and four-part harmony, let a rare ray of sun shine in on Schubert Alley. The Children’s Crusade had stormed the Great White Way. Liberation was at hand. Broadway—and, by extension, Hollywood—would never be the same.
Cut to 1979. Broadway (with its comic strip musicals) and Hollywood (with its tributes to keen teens of the ’50s and ’60s) are the same. Nostalgia has become an epidemic. So it shouldn’t surprise that Milos Forman—fresh from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which he made insanity both sympathetic and lovable—should turn Hair into the Grease of the Vietnam generation.
Forman and screenwriter Michael Weller have retained 19 of the show’s 25 songs, and fleshed out its skeletal plot. But the references to free love, illicit drugs, radical politics and the generation gap are much gentler. The film’s politics of love are about as threatening
as an old Jimmy Carter grin. There’s no sex, or even eroticism, and the only overt homosexuals in the movie are a group of officers at an army café induction centre. Most of the adults are constipated ninnies, like the school principals in ’50s rock ’n’ roll movies. And at theatres where Hair is showing, there’s more dope being smoked in the audience than on the screen.
This is not to say that the movie isn’t a lot of fun. Forman knows how to find appealing actors and get the most from them: Treat Williams as Berger, the leader of this Central Park hippie pack; John Savage as Claude, the Oklahoma boy who (unaccountably) comes to New York City to be drafted and falls in with the group) Beverly D’Angelo as Sheila, the aristocratic rebel who loves both Berger and Claude; Cheryl Barnes who was clerking in a Maine motel when she auditioned for the film and whose rendition of Easy to be Hard is Hair’s most electrifying solo; even from bit players like Donald Alsdurs, as an MP, who in a curt conversation with Berger, pretty well defines what is ingratiating, authoritarian and frightening about the U.S. Army.
Minute by minute, Hair delivers because Forman also knows how to grab an audience and hold it—for as long as the scene or the song lasts. He’s calculating, for both good and ill. He covers his bets. When Berger steps onto a banquet table at Sheila’s upper-class home and rips into I Got Life, Forman is careful to show that Berger is wearing sneakers (don’t worry, no scratches on the table) and that his girl-friend is picking up the plates and candelabra before the advancing hippie (your property is safe). Is this the generation that revolutionized the U.S., that helped end the war, that forced a president to resign? No. These are hippies even Richard Nixon could love.
Maybe it’s unfair to expect Forman’s Hair to provide a radical reassessment of the ’60s. After all, if the show had been too incendiary, it wouldn’t have run on Broadway for four years. Like any musical, it lived by its songs, which still have the power to move an audience to laughter, tears, rage and general good feeling. It’s just a shame that a traumatic decade later this mass of Hair should be restyled, teased, rinsed, blow-dried and, most of all, de-kinked until it has as much body as Howard Cosell’s toupee.
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