When Dow Chemicals Steered The Stars … Milos Forman’s HAIR Reviewed.

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Dance, you fucking hippies, dance!

BD / DVD Dual Format. Regions B / 2. BFI. 15.

Naive Okie Claude (John Savage) is invited to Vietnam by Uncle Sam and before reporting to his draft board in NYC (maybe I’m… er, nit-picking but didn’t they have any draft boards in Oklahoma?) he decides to take in a few of The Big Apple’s sights. In Central Park he is confronted by various designer hippies doing elaborate dance routines, drawn into the picaresque antics of Berger (Treat Williams) and his drop out mates, but most distracted of all by rebellious deb Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo)’s impressive booty as it bounces imperiously up and down on horseback. An acid-fuelled, production number enhanced odyssey through late ’60s America’s class / racial / sexual / political / cultural divides ensues, en route to a bittersweet, allegedly uplifting and highly improbable conclusion…

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Combing through this 40th Anniversary edition of Milos Forman’s 1979 film adaptation of “The American Tribal Love Rock Musical” unfolds a kaleidoscope of interrelated  questions, over and above its own intrinsic worth as a piece of entertainment or Art. Notably, how faithful (in the era of My Sharona and Reaganomics) was it to the original stage vision of Gerome Ragni / James Rado (book and lyrics, pictured above) and Galt MacDermot (music), as brought to the New York stage 12 years earlier? How well did that original reflect the turbulent times on which it aspired to comment? And how much progress has subsequently been made in the social issues addressed by Hair?

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Ragni and Ragno themselves decried the film’s radical narrative departures but something had to give in the transposition of their freewheeling storyline from stage to screen, somebody had to do it and  screenwriter Michael Weller manages an acceptable job of it. Czech emigré Forman (directing his cast in Central Park, above) had established his countercultural credentials with his landmark 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and would continue to embellish them in the likes of The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996). He’s comfortable here (with significant assists from choreographer Twyla Tharp) extracting an eminently watchable movie from a musical that’s always gotten by on one sublime number (you know the one I mean), a couple of OK tunes and several disposable duds. Personally, I’d always continue to hold Milos Forman in high esteem if the only stuff he’d ever committed to celluloid had been Elizabeth McGovern’s nude scenes in Ragtime (1981)…

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… I know, how very sexist of me, but completely in keeping with this cinematic incarnation of Hair. D’Angelo’s character is subjected to various unsolicited fumblings and sexual humiliations throughout the course of the film, all of which she accepts without protest. This is by no means the full extent of the political incorrectness here. Apparent attempts at Civil Rights statements invariably degenerate into wince-inducing racial stereotypes (I mean: “Black boys are delicious… chocolate flavoured love”? Puleeze!) Most jarringly of all, there’s a line in one song earnestly enquiring why “pederasty” is considered “nasty”! They don’t write ’em like that in 2019 and it’s probably just as well. What of the stage play’s commentary on the industrial degradation of our environment (a subject which now seem more pertinent than ever)? Well, all of that has gone conspicuously AWOL from the film, in which Dow Chemicals was allegedly a prominent investor. You don’t need a degree in Chemistry to work out that equation…

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The BFI’s characteristically generous compliment of bonus materials include a brace of psychedelic amalgamations of animation and music, reminiscent of the stuff that used to appear on early ’70s editions of The Old Grey Whistle Test, Anthony Stern’s award-winning 1968 impressionistic documentary short San Francisco (whose seizure-inducing visuals are accompanied by a very early version of The Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive which makes explicit the debt owed by Barrett and co to Love’s reading of the Bacharach – David standard My Little Red Book) and an NFT audio interview with legendary director Nicholas Ray, who appears as a General in Forman’s film. If you shell out for the first pressing of this release you’ll also be getting a fully illustrated booklet with new essays on the film and its director and an interview with screenwriter Michael Weller. My favourite extra on this set though has to be Oscar Riesel’s 1979 short (i.e. 24 minute) Disco mania, a succession of disco footage in (vain) search of a plot, showcasing the terpsichorean and thespian talents of the dynamic former world disco dancing champion Grant Santino. Hope you enjoy Grant’s performance of disco classic Dance Reaction (below) as much as I do…

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