I got life, brother!

A musical past its time made timeless

Published: Dec 19 2014, 01:01:am

Friday, June 29, 1979.
HAIR. Written by Michael Waller. Based on the stage musical by Gerome Ragni, with lyrics by James Rado. Music by Gait MacDermot. Choreography by Twyla Tharp. Directed by Milos Forman. Running times 118 minutes. Mature entertainment with the B.C.Classifier's warning: occasional nudity.
PRAISE THE LORD! I was afraid that they had forgotten how to do it. I was afraid that the movie musical might be dead.
    Thank goodness for Hair, an absolutely smashing adaptation of the international stage hit. A  warm and generous evocation of the 1960s, it is the best thing to happen on a movie screen since last year's Superman,
[1978] and the best musical since Jesus Christ Superstar  (1973).
    Come to think of it, with the possible exception of 1975's The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hair is the first musical since Superstar not made by the deaf, dumb (in the sense of stupid) and blind. What a joy it is to experience a film in which sight and sound are flawlessly matched, and in which both reflect a clear and intelligent cinematic vision.
    The vision here belongs to Milos Forman, the Oscar-winning director of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). The emergence of his talent with musicals brings to four the number of active directors who can be trusted with such material.
    (The others, for the record, are Robert Wise, responsible for 1965's
 The Sound of Music
and West Side Story (1961); Norman Jewison, with 1971's Fiddler on the Roof and Superstar to his credit, and Bob Fosse, director of 1972's Cabaret.)
    Forman, a Czech who left his homeland in 1968, took on a particularly daunting assignment.  As a stage play, Hair was born in outrage — the soft drug scene and the Vietnam war — and was designed to be outrageous.
    First performed in 1967, its group nude scene was notorious. Ten years ago [1969], the mere suggestion that a roadshow version might play Vancouver was enough to set off a municipal censorship crisis.
    All that is history now. Forman was sharp enough to realize that his property was no longer timely, so he set out to make it timeless, to set it within the larger tradition of the movies themselves. He succeeds wonderfully.
    Like Ken Russell, who turned an ambiguous record album into a terrific movie called Tommy
(1975), Forman digs deep into his given material to find the universal resonance lurking within Gerome Ragni's book, James Rado's lyrics and Galt MacDermot's music.
    What he found was the story of the cowboy and the debutante, as well as a large slice of Damon and Pythias. Leo McCarey, anyone?
    Before reporting in for army induction, Oklahoma farmboy Claude Bukowski (John Savage) has two days in New York. In Central Park, he discovers the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and encounters flower power, represented by spare changers Berger (Treat Williams), Jeannie (Annie Golden), Hud (Dorsey Wright) and Woof (Don Dacus).
    He also falls in love with a vision on a horse, wealthy Sheila Franklin (Beverly D'Angelo). Claude's next 48 hours are truly memorable.
    If his handling of Hair is any indication, Forman is a gentle, loving man. Regardless of how the play may have been staged in the past, he shows us in the first few scenes that his is pure entertainment.
    We are shown the street folk enjoying their Aquarian celebration in the park. The camera then cuts to a pair of helmeted policemen. They're mounted on horses and approaching. It cuts back to the hippies moving into what looks like a chorus line.
    A  confrontation is in the making. What happens next is one of the most beautiful, beguiling moments in recent film memory. On the beat, the dancers kick.
    Forman cuts back to the police and we see the horses (!) mimic the kick. On the beat. They have become part of the dance.
    Forman's Hair is the sixties, not as they were, but as we would like to remember them. Helping him to realize his vision are a marvellous cast, the awesome editing talents of Lynzee Klingman, the poetic camera work of Miroslav Ondricek and the inspired choreography of Twyla Tharp. They all deserve a sustained ovation.
    The flower-powerful play has blossomed into a great movie. Hair is here. Be glad.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1979. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Montreal-born Galt MacDermot, who turns 86 today (December 19), moved to New York City in 1964. He was just in time to be a vital part of the cultural moment known as "the sixties." Already a Grammy winner (for his song "African Waltz"), his classical music training was combined with a talent for the rhythms of swing, jazz and rock, nurtured during four years spent in South Africa. The success of Hair gave him a measure of financial independence. Able to take work that interested him, he scored a number of independent films, projects such as black director Ossie Davis's seminal "blaxploitation" feature Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), and Canadian director Harvey Hart's adaptation of John Herbert's stage play Fortune and Men's Eyes (1971), a controversial prison drama. He continued writing for the stage and, in 1971, added a Tony Award to his trophy shelf for Two Gentleman of Verona, a energetic pop musical version of the Shakespearean comedy. In 1974, when original Hair director Tom O'Horgan set out to do a movie adaptation of Eugene Ionesco's absurdist stage play Rhinoceros — reuniting The Producers stars Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder — MacDermot signed on to write the disco-inflected soundtrack. In B.C., he is remembered for "Cantata for Vancouver," a work commissioned to mark our city's centennial in 1986. More recently, he's been rediscovered by a new generation of hip-hop artists who identify with his sound. Speaking of MacDermot's music, Otis Jackson (the rapper known as Madlib), say's "it just hits your soul."