By John H. Foote
18. HAIR (1979)
Having won five Academy Awards for his masterpiece One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Czech director Milos Forman announced the project he would next take on would be a long awaited film version of the counter culture musical Hair, a huge hit on Broadway in the sixties through the early seventies. Though most of Hollywood snickered that it was too late for such a film, United Artists trusted Forman and would make the film with him. First order of business: creating a narrative, because the stage play was all over the place with no strong narrative running through it. In many ways Hair onstage was a collection of vignettes that came across as a snapshot of the sixties, the hippie movement, the Vietnam protests and the young people lashing out against authority. Beads, flowers, freedom, happiness was what Forman wanted to put on the screen, a film that would capture the hippie movement to its fullest, its most authentic and honest.
Claude (John Savage) son of a farmer working the land, hops a bus into New York City to report for duty into the U.S. Military having been drafted for the war in Vietnam. Once there he wanders into Central Park, alive with hippies, dancing, singing, their energy infectious, their freedom exciting. In stunning dance numbers choreographed by the legendary Twyla Tharp, the freedom of the sixties is captured in the dance and the song “Age of Aquarius”. It might have been 1979, but in the theatre watching Hair on screen, it was 1967, in every perfect way. The songs from the stage play were superbly wound into the screenplay written for the film as Forman insisted a narrative to be created. A few songs were omitted from the film, though they had been shot for the film and would be a part of the soundtrack album but overall, the essentials remained.
Adopted by a tribe of hippies led by Berger (Treat Williams) who disagree strongly with the war, Claude is taken under their wing and spends the first night with them stoned on every drug they hand him. The next day they take him to a party and thus begins their adventure together, one that will see them jailed, released, fight, re-unite, and then in a foolish prank, months after Claude has left for basic training, Berger accidentally takes Claude’s place and heads off to war, terrified, as Claude frolics with his lady.
The film is a reawakening to what Vietnam did to the landscape of the United States, tearing it down the middle in a way that had not happened since the Civil War. While young men, often right out of high school, were sent off to war, many of them doomed, the young tried to bring greater awareness about the war to the people of the United States, young and old. They did not do it with angry protests, they did it with talk of peace, of love, of happiness. Through Claude’s eyes we watch as the young people try to educate him about the war, though he goes off to basic training anyway. When they gather and decide to travel across country to meet with Claude, Berger takes his place for what he thinks is a few hours. But while Claude frolics with his friends and his lady, the base is placed on alert and they are moving out. Berger as Claude is going to Vietnam. Claude arrives back and realizes with absolute horror what is happening and tries to find his friend but can only watch as the jet soars over him, sending Berger to his doom. They are next together standing over his grave, as he was indeed killed in Vietnam, likely refusing to fight, to kill another man.
Forman did a magnificent job staging the musical numbers all perfectly choreographed by the expressive, astonishingly gifted Tharp. The opening in Central Park, that sensational “Age of Aquarius” number, is filled with movement, with honesty and with motion, it never seems to stop moving and more than any single scene in the beginning, plunges us back in time to the sixties. The “Sodomy” number, an ode to free love and acceptance of all, is played for laughs, and when they interrupt a party, a snooty social gathering, Berger walks on the tables singing the explosive “I Got Life” speaking to the fact though he has nothing to possess, he has life and needs nothing else. Best of all is the end number that builds and builds into “Let the Sunshine In” as a massive mob forms in front of the White House protesting that terrible war. Tharp was original in her choreography, fresh, we had not seen the likes of her before, and other than Bob Fosse, she was the most exciting new dance artist of her time. She gave Hair the energy and movement it required, as though the film was bursting from the souls of the artists within.
Excellent performances come from the fine ensemble of actors Forman gathered for the film, the standouts being Treat Williams, Beverly D’Angelo, and John Savage, though truthfully there is not a weak performance in the entire film. And we remember even the smallest of roles, the Asian girl dancing in the park as Melba Moore belts out “Age of Aquarius”, seeming to draw her strength from the very heavens she stands under. Very quickly we move from Oklahoma to Central Park, where even the horses seem free!
The superb cinematography captures New York at the time, but more effectively captures the movement of the time, as the restless spirits manifest their joy of life, their quest for peace and love through dance. Forman did everything right in bringing the sixties to the seventies and every decade beyond. Few really great musicals were made in the seventies – Cabaret (1972) towering over most – but Hair (1979) makes a strong case as the finest of the decade.
Like the characters within the film, the film has life, virtually exploding with it.
Let the sunshine in. Over and over.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.