Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical made history in 1967, with its experimental approach, aggressive politics, and infamous, fleeting nude scene. The show had a fascinating, troubled development, but turned into a smash hit in its 1968-1972 Broadway run. Over the years, the songs of Hair have been co-opted by the Top 40, Madison Avenue, and parody (The 40 Year Old Virgin's take on "Aquarius"), while some of the many regional productions and revivals inevitably diluted the original's authenticity (even the much-lauded 2009 Broadway revival could not escape a feeling of commodification). Hair was such a product of its time that the task of mounting it artfully outside of its time must be handled with care.
The film version of Hair, released in 1979, attempted to do just that, with more than a decade's perspective on the "hippie" counter-culture. Director Milos Forman (coming directly off his Best Director Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) was an inspired choice to lead the effort, as was screenwriter Michael Weller, whose plays Moonchildren and Loose Ends bookended the hippie experience. Weller's screenplay for Hair rethinks the material to give more narrative shape to what was essentially a rock revue with characters and themes but only a loose plot. The results are mixed, but Forman's film has moments of sheer brilliance and an overall palpable texture essential to avoiding the impression of a hippie-drag floor show.
James Rado and Gerome Ragni's book and lyrics (with music by Galt MacDermot) put forward the autobiographical, contrasting pair of Claude and Berger, New Yorkers at the forefront of the peace movement. In Forman's film, Claude (John Savage) becomes an Oklahoma farm boy in New York to enjoy a bit of R&R before shipping off to Vietnam. This wide-eyed Claude has enough to handle just taking in New York City, but in Central Park he falls in love at first sight with horse-riding debutante Sheila Franklin (Beverly D'Angelo) and finds himself charmed by a diverse tribe of free spirits led by wild child Berger (Treat Williams). They treat Claude to a drug trip, and before he can shuffle off to war, Claude convinces him to crash a garden party at Sheila's house. A romantic triangle develops amongst Claude, Sheila, and Berger, only complicated further when Claude fulfills his duty and enters the Army.
Rado and Ragni publicly expressed dissatisfaction with the changes made by Weller and Forman, particularly in its seeming deemphasis of the peace movement. Indeed, Berger's tribe comes off more as homeless dropouts, free-loving members of the drug culture, than political-minded rebels, though moments in the film—and particularly the finale—evoke the characters' intent to stand tall for peace and freedom. A fair amount of the show's many, many numbers hit the cutting room floor, and others have been rendered ineffective (the inert irony of hallucinogen paean "Walking in Space" applied to boot camp) or senseless ("Manchester, England," now fumbled back and forth between Berger and Claude), but much of the material's potency survives, and some of it finds fresh new meaning.
Forman's Hair is at its best when it's most creatively subversive. Case in point: "Black Boys"/"White Boys," which in the play was a plain declaration of interracial desire. It's that in the film, as well, but intercutting finds not only the women extolling their desire, but also the all-male Army examination board (played largely by soul group the Stylistics) salivating over their naked new recruits. Whether you take that literally (as hypocrisy over homosexuality in the military) or figuratively (the unseemly "lust" of the military for a parade of young men to the slaughter), you have to admit it's a bold and provocative choice.
The film is exceptionally well cast, with Williams proving he's got the pipes and the pathos for Berger, and Savage giving a powerfully resonant performance as the understated Claude. Twyla Tharp contributes the striking choreography, and MacDermot himself serves as musical arranger and conductor. Special kudos go to vocal arranger and conductor Thomas Pierson, as this film has some of the best choral vocals you'll hear in any movie musical, and absolutely blistering solos, like Cheryl Barnes on "Easy to Be Hard" (also one of the film's dramatic highlights), Ren Woods on "Aquarius," and Broadway star Betty Buckley on "Walking in Space." Hair benefited from the creative freedom of '70s cinema—and while there's a longshot opportunity to make a more definitive screen version, the pitfalls are many: handle with care.
Hair gets a surprisingly strong hi-def treatment in its Blu-ray debut. The image retains its film-like texture with healthy but never intrusive grain, and a strong black level anchors the picture quality: contrast and color are well calibrated for an accuarate and handsome transfer (the dirt in the opening credits is a result of the optical process used at the time, and disappears as soon as the credits do). The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is glorious, achieving a full-bodied immersion with warm, rich tones to the music.
Unfortunately, the only extra—as per the title's historical treatment on home video—is the "Theatrical Trailer" (2:49, HD), but the A/V here and budget price make this well worth the upgrade.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer