A Musical To Make You Rethink Getting A Hair Cut: Olive Signature’s ‘Hair’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

When it comes to summing up a movie, trailers don’t always get it right. Hair’s isn’t even that bad, if you’ve never seen the film before, yet nothing about the trailer, which plays up the love story between Claude (John Savage) and Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo), gets across what makes this movie musical so special.

Adapted for the screen by director, Miloš Forman, after originally premiering off-Broadway in 1967, Hair tells the story of Claude, a young man from Oklahoma who’s come to New York City to enlist in the army. While the film was released in ‘79, it’s set during Vietnam in the 60’s. Initially Claude plans to spend his last few days being a tourist but he ends up tagging along with a group of hippies who become his friends.

It’s not just that Berger (Treat Williams) and his pals show Claude around. They embrace him as one of their own and watching people go to such lengths for someone they barely know is really something to witness, even in a fictional movie. Hair covers some dark topics, but what the film isn’t is cynical and that takes some getting used to, too, if you’re a cynic. Friendship, more than romance, is what makes Hair a masterpiece, and the songs are nothing to sneer at either.

‘Aquarius’ and ‘Let the Sunshine In’, are probably the best known songs today – if more for being sung by The 5th Dimension – but James Rado and Gerome Ragni wrote all of Hair‘s lyrics and there’s a lot of dissecting of words and the power people give them. The song ‘Sodomy’, for example, is basically a list of sexual acts that Woof (Don Dacus) sings to a trio of wealthy women on horseback (in the featurette, ‘The Tribe Remembers’,  Dacus shares a funny anecdote about how some of his family members thought he was singing Italian). Then there are songs like ‘Colored Spade’, which Hud (Dorsey Wright) sings lead on, which uses the n-word and raises questions about reappropriation.

Sometimes it’s the people that Hair gives a voice to that matter, like Hud’s baby mama (Cheryl Barnes), who sings ‘Easy to Be Hard’. Other times it’s the subtext provided by Twyla Tharp’s choreography in songs like ‘Hare Krishna’ and “Manchester England’. ‘Black Boys/White Boys’ was apparently one of the hardest numbers to edit yet it touches on everything from interracial marriage to abuses of power.

One of the best things about Hair, though, is it gives these characters lives before they were hippies. They don’t stay in New York, either, which speaks directly to the film’s lack of cynicism. Usually New York movies (like Godspell and Fame) stay in New York, but when Claude needs their help, they go to the army base where he’s staying for training. 

Olive Film’s Blu-Ray release includes new interviews with Tharp, film editors, Lynzee Klingman and Stanley Warnow, and production designer, Stuart Wurtzel. James Mangold (who directed Walk the Line) provides a video appreciation on Forman and Sheila O’Malle’s essay is provided as a booklet and a featurette. Williams is the only main cast member absent from ‘The Tribe Remembers’ (which is the highlight of this release, with some great casting stories) but the commentary by Williams and assistant director, Michael Hausman, is on the disappointing side. There are too many silent gaps and one thing this release could’ve used is a featurette on the songs that were cut from the movie and the changes that were made from stage to screen (O’Malle’s essay touches on this the most).

Until Hair, Harold & Maude was my benchmark for what great movie endings could be. Hair doesn’t have any Beatles songs but, if you liked Across the Universe, I highly recommend purchasing Hair when it comes out on Blu-Ray this week from Olive Films.

Hair is available on Blu-Ray starting June 30th as part of the Olive Signature collection.

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