Saturday, July 25, 2009

My Hair Like Jesus Wore It, Hallelujah, I Adore It

Kathy & I watched Milos Forman’s & Twyla Tharp’s film adaptation of Hair last night. It’s one of my favorite movie musicals, and though I haven’t watched it for years, I pretty much burned my way through a VHS of it (and a cassette of the play’s cast recording) in high school.

Some random thoughts as it began: Watching the Tribe dance in counterpoint to the police horses, I remembered that I was lucky enough to get a chance to go to a rehearsal of a dance company as Twyla Tharp choreographed, back when I was an entertainment reporter. It was an open-to-the-press kind of thing, and man, she could command a room.

Beverly D’Angelo as Sheila, riding by on a horse, completely unattainable. It made me think of what must be a similar shot in National Lampoon’s Vacation, where Christie Brinkley drives by Chevy Chase… while D’Angelo is in the front seat next to him. Enjoy what you’ve got, Griswold.

It strikes me that some of the ancillary performances in this are amazing – and not just the singing parts, like Nell Carter’s. Check out Charolotte Rae in the party they crash – she’s fascinated with the hippies (well, Berger) from the start, despite being in the same cohort as all the other uptight people around her. (And when he sings about his ass, watch her clap!) Berger’s mom, played by Antionia Rey, is wonderful, throwing her son a surreptitious lifeline as he argues with his dad. And Miles Chapin, as Sheila’s brother Steve, plays the smug little brother to the hilt.

Some other things: I wonder if anyone would be able to get the movie made with a song like “Colored Spade” in it today. There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s satirical rather than racist—that’s absolutely clear—but some of those lyrics are just taboo. “Black Boys/White Boys” is similar, to a lesser extent, but the performance (by Nell Carter and Ellen Foley, among others) is so damn randy and joyous that it’s a treat to see and hear. It’s funny—there are things you couldn’t say today, but because someone was brave enough to try them 30 years ago, they’re grandfathered in. (Note: It doesn’t mean you should sing along on your iPod on the train, though.)

And then there’s the Tribe itself. Treat Williams is great as Berger—the thing that struck me last night is that he is resolutely pacifist. He tries to resolve all of his conflicts with talk, and never throws a punch or even grabs anyone. As Claude, John Savage has the best hey-am-I-stoned? face I’ve ever seen. Woof and Hud and Jeannie (Don Dacus of Chicago, Dorsey Wright and Annie Golden) are fantastic—I particularly like the barely-disguised crush Jeannie has on Claude.

And one of the scenes that’s always grabbed me—and last night was no different—is when Hud’s fiancée (played by Cheryl Barnes) calls him out on abandoning her and their son. It’s such a powerful moment, as she remains still throughout “Easy to Be Hard, letting the action happen while she waits. Interestingly enough, it’s something of a counterpoint to the opening number, “Age of Aquarius,” also set in a park, in which the singer (Ren Woods) twirls but is stationary, while the rest of the tribe dances more freely. Tonally, Woods’ song is an explosion, pushing outward, while Barnes’ song is a magnetic, drawing the rest of the Tribe back.

And then there’s that ending. It’s different than that of the play – from what I recall, they play doesn’t have much of a plot, but the movie offers a slick twist at then end, reminiscent of an E.C. comic book. I know it has its detractors, but it absolutely works for me. And finally, after we see the Tribe one last time, Forman cuts to a field of impossible size, and with some judicious cuttings shows us its in front of the White House. And it floods with people, a sudden rush of protesters and celebrants, until no grass can be seen, just body after body, wanting to end the Vietnam War, and all wars. Let the Sun Shine, indeed.



Greg! said...

I don't know if there's a comprehensive record of the struggles Milos Forman went through in bringing the "unfilmable" HAIR to the screen, but if there is I'd love to read/see/hear it. Yeah, the stage show doesn't have much of a plot -- certainly nothing like Claude's clear character journey in Forman's film -- and much of the stage show was styled around its being a stage show. (I'd love to see the recent NY revival, if its run hasn't been snipped short by the economic downturn; the show feels very connected to where we are after the past decade.) I have to agree about the ironic (?) twist ending; I first saw HAIR on the big screen at the old TLA, its soundtrack blasting loud through the place's tinny sound system, and the last fifteen minutes hit me square in the gut.

Ah, Cheryl Barnes' "Easy to be Hard." As I recall, there's no specific backstory to the song in the show. With the context it's given here, though, and with the assured stillness with which Forman films it (damn, that Czech had balls), it's a knockout number.

Probably worth noting, too, that Forman pulled off a great film of another so-theatrical-it's-not-filmable play: Amadeus. Hell, that's damn close to a musical itself, now that I think of it.

Greg! said...

And I forgot to mention what I thought of when I read your comment on the perils of all the taboo terms in "Colored Spade." Of course, the whole point of the song is own those words, slap them down on the table and say, "Beat this, honkey!"

The queer-punk band Pansy Division have their own very gay set of lyrics, which begin "I'm a cock-sucking faggot..." You get the idea. It's all about owning the language.

Rob S. said...

Oh, that's right -- I remember that Pansy Division song, now that you mention it!