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In Film, Reviews on April 22, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Milos Forman, 1979

Shown at FACT Liverpool, Wednesday 6 April, 1830

As part of their ‘Alternative Musicals’ season, FACT have shown a number of rarely seen gems from various parts of the globe.  Tonight’s offering, the final picture of the season, was Hair, a Hollywood film based on the Broadway musical.

The film follows Claude Bukowski, played by John Savage, as he goes to New York for the first time.  He has two days to kill before joining up to protect his country in Vietnam.  During this time he meets a group of young people who aggregate around a leader figure, Berger, played by Treat Williams.

These characters are clearly meant to be interpreted as hippies, with long flowing hair, flairs and tie-dye clothing.  They take drugs, are unashamedly open with their sexuality, and laugh at others for being ‘up tight’ when they don’t understand their morality. The word ‘hippy’ is now used as an insult, and even when the film was made, in 1979, they had clearly become a caricature, a symbol of something lost.  It is this lost hope which is explored in the film.

Hippies, yes, but not at all politically aware.  When trying to convince Claude not to go to Vietnam, there is no mention of peace, of indiscriminate killing of native Vietnamese, of colonialism, of exploitation of American soldiers from poor backgrounds to further the cause of the rich. The same rich who would never dream of giving up their own lives.  The best the hippies can come up with is, ‘Well if the boot was on the other foot, I wouldn’t do it for you.’

Nor are they non-conformist.  Claude actually spends one acid trip dreaming of marrying a rich girl.  And unlike Bonnie and Clyde, they are not glamorous in their criminality.  At one point they need some money, so Berger tries to con some rich people.  He proves comically inept at this, and so where does he turn?  To his mum.

The picture painted therefore is not of hippies as a revolutionary left, or of a group that is inspirational in any way, except perhaps its Caligula-like disregard for anything except immediate desires.  This is a group of children, skipping their way through life with no care for anyone else.  At one point Claude asks Berger, ‘What did you do that for?’ Berger’s unfazed response is like his manifesto, “What do you mean, man?  Because it was fun.’

The film’s many songs are rarely more than two-minutes long; some are very good, most are very catchy and almost all are frankly hilarious.  They openly take on, but brazenly refuse to explore, many issues that remain taboo thirty years later – sexuality, race, class.  It is all part of an exhilarating journey through the morality of 1979 America, where the characters treat the taboos in the same way the film does; not as issues, but as games, or objects of mockery.

The real story is not in the issues or the taboos, but in what the characters can do with these games, whether they can take responsibility for each other at the same time as enjoying the freedoms they think they enjoy, and for which they exalt themselves over their less enlightened compatriots.

There are echoes of other films that explore the late 1960s and early 1970s here, such as Easy Rider and Shampoo.  The latter made its point by explicit reference to the election of Reagan in 1981, whereas this film uses Vietnam as its political anchor.  The thrust with all of them was not to reminisce of what might have been, of the potential of that ‘great’ period, but actually to mourn what was lost.  The final scene reminds one of Warren Beatty in Shampoo, watching ruefully as Julie Christie drives off into the sunset with the man with the money, or of Peter Fonda in Easy Rider whispering wistfully, ‘We blew it, man.’

Well, they blew it.

Will we?


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