Sunday, November 27, 2011
Like so many record collectors I've known over the years, family life put a serious dent in my mom's ability to collect music. As a young single women, she and my aunt amassed a wonderful collection of 50's era 45's that I remember listening to when I was a small child, as my mom did household chores around the house.
Still, new releases would find their way into the house over the years from time to time -often times gifts from my dad to my mom: The Beatles' "Hard Day's Night" album, the soundtrack to "The Graduate" with all of those wonderful Simon and Garfunkel songs, and the soundtrack from the Broadway musical "Hair." Because fewer recordings were coming into the house, any new ones got played and played and played, until everyone in the household was quite familiar with all the songs.
Unlike the two preceding albums, by artists whose work I have collected over the years, I had largely forgotten the soundtrack to Hair, until I happened upon a showing of the 1979 movie version, directed by Milos Forman (who also did "One Flew OVer The Cuckoo's Nest" and "Amadeus.")
Also, unlike the two the preceding albums, I realized that there were songs from Hair that mom never played on the family hi-fi.
As I watched "Hair" on Thanksgiving night, a couple of things struck me about it. First off, the music, whose new arrangements had been done by the show's composer Galt MacDermot seemed lackluster and dull. The music in this version of the original rock musical no longer rocked. What had sounded vibrant and exciting on the soundtrack album, now sounded like music from a variety show.
Secondly, the portrayals of the main characters seemed menacing and obnoxious as opposed to charismatic, lovable and freewheeling, which was the vibe I picked up from the music years ago. Having never seen the play, or even knowing what it was about, I presumed the movie was a faithful retelling of the play.
As it turns out, it wasn't.
From what I can gather, the play "Hair" was less a plot-driven piece, than a theme driven meditation on a variety of 60's issues: the peace movement ("Aquarius,") race relations ("Colored Spade,""White Boys" and "Black Boys") free love ("Sodomy,") drug use,("Hashish") the enviromnment ("Air") and the hippie movement ("Hair.")
Many of the songs were simply lists of terms: Colored Spade was comprised of racial epithets, Sodomy is a list of sexual proclivities, Air is a list of chemicals in the air, Hashish is a list of drugs and true to its name, Initials is a list of initials.
There are also silly, funny songs used to introduce the various characters: Berger's opening song "Donna" is about returning from San Francisco looking for "a sixteen year old virgin" and "psychedelic urchin" who was "busted for her beauty"
His buddy Claude's introductory song "Manchester England" shows him as a poser from Flushing Queens, talking in a fake English accent, and claiming to be a "genius genius" from "Manchester England England"
What plot there is to the show involves Claude's moral dilemma, whether or not to report for the draft for the Viet Nam war. Eventually he does, and we learn in the finale, that he was killed in action.
The movie switches things up considerably. Claude (played by John Savage) is a country bumpkin from Oklahoma, making the long bus ride to New York City to be drafted (which, in itself makes no sense.) Once in town, he encounters Berger (Treat Williams) and the others panhandling for money.
Williams is a fine actor, but in this role, he comes across more like a Manson-era bully than one of the Fabulous Freak Brothers (which is closer to the spirit of the original characters.) Inexplicably, Berger sings "Donna" while Claude is chasing a woman he's just seen in the park (Beverly D'Angelo) while both are on horseback.
Later, Treat Williams as Berger steals Claude's introductory song, and sings "Manchester England" as a way of introducing Claude to the group, before Claude himself takes the lead and finished it himself.
Through a series of plot contrivances, Claude becomes angry with the group after a practical joke and he reports for active duty and is sent to Nevada for basic training. Once the group hears from him, they steal a car from Beverly D'Angelo's boyfriend and drives there. Berger sneaks on base dressed like an officer, and swaps places with Claude, so he can drive off base and visit his hippie pals. While he is gone, Claude's unit gets called up for Viet Nam, and Berger has to go in his place.
What should be tragic, comes off as funny, given how obnoxious Berger has behaved up to his point. Getting sent into combat serves his lazy, non-conformist ass right. The film ends with the gang standing around a grave marker with Berger's name (shouldn't that be Claude's name since he was pretending to be him?) and then there is a big peace rally in front of the White House. The End.
The biggest tragedy though about the movie version is this: in our culture, the motion picture seems to be the final word on anything: novels, plays, short stories, even tv shows. By creating a lackluster version of an otherwise dynamic musical experience, the majority of those who see the film will presume what I initially did -that it was a faithful adaptation of the play, but one need only compare the movie's production of the title song to that of the 2009 version of the play to see how ineptly the movie was handled:
Gotta say, the movie version looks like it primarily appeals to aficionados of shampoo commercials and really lame prison riots. The play looks like a lot of fun. The next time a touring company comes through town, I hope to be there.