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Protest Songs: Hair on Blu-ray

  In 1967, the hippy musical Hair was the hottest ticket on Broadway, as it would go on to be across the globe, staged by various companies and a magnet for the younger generation who found its mixture of counterculture themes and anti-Vietnam War rhetoric, as well as that old favourite, rampant self-expression, were hugely appealing. Its songs became hits and were heard all over the radio of the late sixties, and even now a play of The Fifth Dimension's Let the Sunshine in or The Cowsills' rendition of its title track can evoke that time instantly, whether you were a hippy or otherwise engaged - or not born yet.

Hair inspired other hippy musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, as well as other now-forgotten tries at capturing that zeitgeist, but a film incarnation would have seemed to be an obvious choice. While the musical as a film genre was suffering in increasing doldrums, there were some substantial box office hits in that style, such as Funny Girl or Cabaret, so why didn't this one join them? Well, it did, it's just that it took twelve years for it to debut, by which time it had turned into a nostalgia piece as the culture had moved on, post-Vietnam, to the disco era, and that too was beginning to wane in popularity.

In fact, they both were turning to kitsch, which meant that a movie of Hair was going to have to appeal to the self-flagellation, or at least the poring over of past mistakes, that was taking place in the late seventies and into the eighties with Hollywood leading the charge: The Deer Hunter and Coming Home were big hits at the point when the film of Hair was tapping into the regret, but one thing that America maybe did not really need was a bunch of hippies rubbing their noses in how badly the war had gone. Not just that, either, but prancing about and throwing shapes to the sound of a discofied hit soundtrack album.

Diehard fans of the stage production complained that director Milos Forman had revamped the original to the extent that some songs were heard only in short bursts, and others had been excised altogether, and others had issues with the visuals, which rather than bright and psychedelic were more wedded to the earth colours the seventies gravitated towards, for interior design at any rate. Nevertheless, though much of the reaction was, "Hey, who cares about Hair now?", the project did pick up a few decent reviews, and gathered a collection of aficionados simply pleased to see anything related to the beloved (by them) source.

The main sticking point in the translation was that in the theatrical staging, you could be stylised and symbolic, crafting a series of vignettes revolving around the musical numbers appropriate to the spirit of the tunes with your captive audience getting into it. However, for a film, Forman took an alternate route, so there was a realistic take on those numbers, with the performers strutting their stuff and miming to the soundtrack in actual locations, outdoor and indoor, not a studio as something like the then-recent adaptation of The Wiz had opted for, not that this had been a huge success at the cinema either.

Watching Hair now in the theatre is a nostalgic experience, and it is still revived, but the film far less so, given the curious experience of watching an item of nostalgia from a time that a different generation are nostalgic about. Got that? Which is to say, if you had warm memories of the hippy era in 1979, this picture is going to come across as weirdly artificial all these decades later, not least because Forman and his team had rejigged the plot to something more akin to a heavily ironic urban myth rather than a resonant tribute to those who protested and those who died in the conflict it was so wrapped up in.

Original writers Galt McDermott, James Rado and Gerome Ragni were vocal in their dissatisfaction with how this was made, but from a future perspective, there are other issues in how its endeavours to be free and easy and daring, pitting itself against the squares. For a start, one of the first songs posits sodomy and masturbation alongside pederasty as naughty activities that shouldn't be so criticised by the mainstream, and right after there's a song cheering Roman Polanski alongside other sixties cinematic talents; then there's an entire ditty where main black cast member Dorsey Wright merrily trills various racial slurs.

You could laugh at these choices as culturally tone-deaf missteps born of their age, but that's not really the way things go in the third millennium, where irony is no longer a sufficient get out clause. But there are other distractions, mostly with lead hippy Treat Wiliams, a frankly over-entitled pain in the arse who thinks because he is anti-war it gives him the perfect excuse to indulge in sexual harassment (all of it aimed at rich girl Beverly D'Angelo) and behaving like a boor because rules are not for him. All of which can make his ultimate fate curiously satisfying if you grow sick of him, but if you do, you would not be watching this anyway.

Nowadays, Hair is best remembered as the musical with onstage nudity, where the entire casts gets their respective kits off, so that had to be a part of the movie too, but here it's night time skinny dipping that inspires it, though there is a smattering of boobs and bums to be glimpsed throughout. Whether it is recalled as an important consciousness-raising production that tunefully set out the fears of a generation, as it probably should be, is a different matter: you cannot entirely divorce one from the other, but star John Savage's appearances in Vietnam War films, this included, does not quite see Hair, the film, embraced along with those other examples.

The BFI have released Hair as a Blu-ray in restored form, which may or may not see it reassessed. But the extras are, as always, highly intriguing. First up is Nancy Hanna's short 1966 animation Aquarius which takes us on a journey through various dimensions, not unlike the more celebrated cartoon Cosmic Zoom. This resembles a trip through a selection of science fiction paperback covers of the sixties, accompanied by Harry South's lounge bar jazz which only occasionally lapses into a freakout before composing itself once again. Hanna worked in advertising for her career, and this was her only effort away from that.

San Francisco from 1968 is a fifteen minute short from Anthony Stern, who captured a montage of imagery from that city to evoke what it would be like to be in an American location in that specific point in time, when the hippies were dominating both the place and the cultural conversation. We see speedily edited glimpses of anything from a delicatessen (because of its neon) to a park to a dance class and so on, with an interlude where his camera calms down to take in a bare naked lady performing some kind of arcane ceremony that looks staged. But the most interest will stem from the soundtrack from "The" Pink Floyd, a rare version of Interstellar Overdrive exclusive to the film.

Not quite as famous, and sounding like library music, from circa 1970 is a three minute sitar instrumental arranged as a pop tune, accompanied by visuals of chrysanthemums, a brightly-lit mobile and selected psychedelic blooms, all of which manage to be far more far out than anything in Hair, the movie.

The last short on the disc is less hippy, more disco dolly as the twenty-five minute supporting feature Disco Mania unfolds. There is a disco quality to some of Hair's 1979 arrangements, so fair enough, but in the main Oscar Riesel's effort was a tribute to the craze of 1978, complete with some recognisable and not-so-recognisable tunes. The clips of the World Disco Dancing Championships (soon to be a regular on bank holiday television) are valuable enough, but there's a story here too as hapless, silent nerd David (Stuart Mackenzie) tries and fails to get in the swing of disco, but remains optimistic as he ends up with a new item of clobber he is certain will succeed.

Rounding off the set, an audio interview from 1969 with cult director Nicholas Ray who appeared as the General in the film of Hair; the original trailer; and an image gallery; plus a booklet with new and contemporary writing on the film. Even if you're a sceptic about the main feature, it is an interesting artefact, and if you're a fan, this is the best it's looked on home entertainment release.

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018