Hair February 17, 2018
thrilling sort of rebellion can be found in even the most conventional of a musical. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching a subpar Judy Garland vehicle or a masterful modern-day attempt at recreating the various magics of a Stanley Donen piece; there’s something inexhaustibly invigorating about watching prettied characters burst out into song and dance when their mundane lives are informed by enough emotion. Even most trite of a farce can be temporarily made urgent when a rote storyline’s put on the back burner for a spontaneous singing and/or dancing session.
Disruption of the status quo is a powerful cinematic recurrence, after all. Look at the way Gene Kelly shrugged off chances at public humiliation and wallowed in his euphoria by singing and dancing in the rain. The way Jane and Marilyn were able to turn a casual chat in a café into a spectator-heavy gawk fest. The way, er, Zac Efron and co. transformed an otherwise routine game of basketball into a marvel on par with the “By a Waterfall” sequence in Footlight Parade (1933).
Such sequences become all the more exciting because they revolve around individuals deciding that they simply cannot hold back whatever they’re feeling at that particularly moment in time. Social standards can go fuck themselves; self-expression’s more important than anything.
Yet most musicals only intrinsically say this. The genre seems to prefer to condition us into thinking that we’re in the presence of a parallel universe where belt offs and everlasting shimmies of the hips are as mundane as exhaling.
In contrast, Miloš Forman’s Hair (1979) wants the tunes and toe taps to disrupt, to seem kind of unnatural. It’s a 1968-set social movie involving Vietnam War-era disaffection, and is so exhausted by the oppressive status quo as it stands that all the sunlit outbreaks into song and dance are really just extraneous opportunities to extend one’s finger toward The Man.
It’s electrifying, though I gather it’d be even more so if it’d been released about a decade earlier. Theater geeks know the story by now: Hair was an immediate hit – and became a lasting fixture – on the theatrical circuit after making its Off-Broadway debut in 1967. For its most ardent fans, the musical was revolutionary: it encapsulated and brought prominence to the countless frustrations felt by an inarguably fucked-over generation of youths. It also contained killer tunes that mimicked the recent rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the culture.
That cinematic adaptation did not come about until the end of the ‘70s is baffling, considering how vital Hair was to the ‘60s. I also find it impossible not to cling to this idea that the movie might’ve been a landmark had it been made in, say, 1970: movies are always better when they’re directly reflecting the times during which they’re coming out. If Hair were an of-the-moment tour-de-force rather than a period piece, perhaps it’d be just as discussed as Easy Rider (1969).
That missed opportunity hurts it. There’s a “remember when” quality that undermines at least some of its exigency. But even for that ineptitude in timing, Hair is still a remarkably effective musical. Passionate and sobered – and, most importantly, thunderously soundtracked – it at once is an inspired anomaly among its genre counterparts and a fitting closer to a decade of hedonism-informed burnout. I’d call it a classic. But then there’s the timing thing (and the omnipresence of one-dimensional characters I’ll talk more about later).
Qualms aside, much about Hair is good, sometimes even great. It stars John Savage as Claude, an ingenuous Oklahoma-native in the Big Apple after being drafted. Before his draft-board appointment, Claude has taken it upon himself to wander the city streets and discover just what makes this metropolis so great – and what it’s like to momentarily not strictly be a country boy.
Moments after arriving, he encounters a “tribe” of hippie types fronted by George (Treat Williams), a long-haired free spirit who’d likely be shouting “carpe diem” if John Keating were his brother. The group surrounding him is rash – all’ve given themselves to a sex-positive, drug-loving counterculture – but nonetheless appeals to the naïve Claude. He’s never met anyone like this wild bunch.
So after a quasi-guided tour is offered, Claude accepts, with close connections inevitably formed. Unexpected, though, is how Claude’s acceptance into this friend group coincides with a certain sort of enlightenment. He comes to be on the receiving end of an education on social injustice and other national issues, and this permanently changes him. And makes him realize just how wrong his drafting is.
Hair’s smattering of social commentaries are all, of course, delivered through song. So good thing all are spunky and riddled with attitude – take the classic musical route and perhaps we’d be left with something preachy and outdated. But not an artistic mistake is made during the film’s two-hour running time: it finds a deft balance between cultural piquancy and musical excitement, proving to be one of the few of its genre that contains both endlessly catchy tunes and successfully executed stabs at social relevance.
It’s almost perfect. But then there’s the timeliness misstep, and, as vaguely mentioned before, a smorgasbord of characters who never quite stick. The film’s so focused on its songs and its plethora of musical stagings that it forgets to draw individuals who aren’t more than types. (We sort of get who these people are, but they also they don’t seem to exist outside of a trope list that also gives the manic pixie dream girl a spot.)
I cannot deny that the movie is intellectually bracing. But imagine if we grew attached to its characters, thus prompting an emotional response as telling as the one our brain’s having? It needn’t matter, however: Hair’s so aurally and aesthetically rip-roaring, most of my misgivings end up getting forgotten about for the most part. Emphasis on most, though. B+