MGM // 1979 // 121 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 29th, 2011
The Star Wars of movie musicals!
"Give me a head with hair, long beautiful hair, shining gleaming steaming flaxen waxen. Give me it down to there, hair, shoulder length or longer, here, baby, there, mamma, everywhere, daddy daddy hair! Flow it, show it, long as God can grow it, my hair!"
Claude Bukowski (John Savage, The Deer Hunter) is a farm boy from Kansas who's just been drafted by the U.S. Army. Claude travels to New York, where he plans to spend a couple of days sight-seeing before he goes to basic training. While there, he makes friends with a group of hippies led by the free-spirited George Berger (Treat Williams, Once Upon a Time in America) and falls in love with a woman named Sheila (Beverly D'Angelo, National Lampoon's Vacation). After Claude is shipped off to basic training in Nevada, his new friends begin hatching a plan to rescue him.
When Hair was released on Broadway in 1968, it received a terrific reception from critics and was regarded as a fresh, groundbreaking musical that tried some bold new techniques and had some relevant things to say. The musical stirred up controversy in many circles, as there were quite a few who objected to the musical's startling nudity and celebration of drug use. And yet, somehow Milos Forman's 1979 film adaptation feels curiously harmless -- the life has been drained from this vital tale. A great deal was changed in the transition from stage to screen, and Hair lost a great deal of its power in the process. Original writers James Rado and Gerome Ragni expressed their displeasure with the cinematic version, claiming that it had nothing in common with the original show save for the music and some character names.
Indeed, some of the choices made by Forman and screenwriter Michael Weller are more than a little puzzling. Transforming Claude from an authentic hippie into an Oklahoma farm boy who makes friends with hippies was intended to turn the central character into a more relatable audience surrogate, but Claude becomes dull in the process. Savage is given little to do save for stand around and look bewildered during much of the film; observing in confused curiosity as his hippie pals sing, dance, get high, and promote free love. The film also omits the element about Claude wishing he were from "Manchester, England," which makes that particular song sound strangely out-of-place. Perhaps the biggest mistake was to use the drug hymn "Walking in Space" (accompanied by wildly trippy production on Broadway) as background music for a bland military training montage.
Much of the basic plot has been re-written, but Weller and Forman are too frequently unable to find ways to make smooth segues into the musical numbers. There are quite a few moments in which characters just seem to start singing because it's time for a song, not because a scene has successfully built up to a musical interlude. Only in the film's final ten minutes or so (featuring the one-two punch of "The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In") does Forman manage to deliver a sequence in which the traditional film scenes segue seamlessly with the musical numbers (and it's where he delivers the one major plot change that actually works very well).
Still, for all of the awkwardly-staged numbers, clumsy dialogue scenes used as glue to hold the numbers together, and frustrating changes to the original musical, there's a generous sprinkling of fun ideas presented in the film. The incorporation of a cheeky homoerotic element into the pairing of "Black Boys" and "White Boys" turns that pair of numbers into one of the film's funniest sequences, the prison setting of the title tune allows for an engagingly rambunctious production number, and the "Age of Aquarius" sequence early in the film kicks this flower-power tale off on a strong note.
Hair is a deeply-flawed film, but it could have worked in spite of the aforementioned flaws if only Forman had found a way to convey the burning social passion that seems to be lurking in the background of many scenes. What he delivers instead is a film that rarely transcends the anti-authoritarian fumes of the average "slobs vs. snobs" comedy. The messages the film has to offer are about as deep as those presented in Edwin Starr's "War" ("What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!"), but it doesn't even manage to convey those messages with as much concise punch as that song. Despite its charms and its handful of inventive moments, Hair is so much less than it should have been.
As for the film's 1080p/1.85:1 transfer: During the opening scene of Hair (in which Claude's father drops Claude off at the train station), I groaned aloud in disappointment. It's an awful-looking scene, loaded with scratches, flecks, dirt, grime, awful detail, tons of grain -- I honestly thought I was in for the worst hi-def transfer I had ever seen. Fortunately, things improve dramatically once Claude reaches New York, and remain fairly solid for the remainder of the film. Detail is excellent, flesh tones are warm and natural, there's a pleasing (and quite light) measure of natural grain left intact and black levels are impressively deep. Audio is also quite sturdy, with most of the musical numbers coming through with vigor and clarity. While there's an obvious disconnect between the dubbed vocals and what we're seeing onscreen at times, at least it sounds strong. Dialogue scenes are mostly clean and clear. The only supplement on the disc is a trailer.
Hair could have and should have been another Milos Forman anti-establishment gem to stand alongside One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, and The People vs. Larry Flynt. Instead, it's a rather forgettable, ho-hum adaptation of one of the most striking musicals of the 1960s.
Just let the sunshine in, man.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 121 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG