Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The recent release of Gloria Steinem biopic The Glorias and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial Of The Chicago 7—along with the ongoing protests in the streets of American cities—has us thinking back on other movies about activism.
By the time Hair the movie finally came to theaters, it had been over a decade since the 1968 Broadway debut of the musical that brought the hippie counterculture to mainstream audiences. Woodstock footage was vintage, stemming from an age that seemed much further away—an innocent time now stained by the Manson murders and Watergate. Although he had no experience in musicals, director Miloš Forman chose Hair as the follow-up to his Oscar-winning One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. With the aid of choreographer Twyla Tharp and screenwriter Michael Weller, he reworked the plot of the entire story, so much so that original creators Gerome Ragni and James Rado maintained that the definitive screen version of Hair had yet to be filmed.
Forman et al., though, were able to accomplish the near-impossible: simultaneously bringing that counterculture back to life for the length of one joyous, energetic film, and preserving it for posterity forever afterward. Freed from the constraints of the stage, Forman used the bucolic but decidedly urban Central Park as his backdrop, Tharp’s jubilant yet pointed choreography (police horses mimic the hippies dancing mere minutes into the film) celebrating not just the youth movement but life itself. In contrast to the stage version, in which he was among the leaders of the hippie group, protagonist Claude (John Savage, who appeared in the similarly Vietnam-themed The Deer Hunter the year before) is now an innocent Okie who comes to New York to enter the Army after being drafted. There, he falls in with the hippie crowd, led by Treat Williams’ Berger, in an unforgettably charismatic performance.
Hair’s embrace of life transcends the anti-war movement, as Berger proclaims in his most triumphant performance, “I Got Life,” explaining to a posh group of swells what he gets out of his unconventional lifestyle. Even the title song—which Forman places in a jail, highlighting the film’s theme of freedom—makes a case for hair as rebellion, an easy flag to indicate defiance of the establishment and the embrace of the moment. In Savage’s number “Where Do I Go?”, a band of commuters follow each other robotically and fruitlessly, seeming much more lost than the effervescent Central Park crowds of drug-takers and music-lovers.
Beginning with the ritual burning of draft cards, Hair nonetheless lays out rather succinctly just what the hippies were rebelling against. Having their lives at stake made young people much more impassioned to protest what they saw as a pointless and cruel war. Every frothy Hair pop concoction like “Aquarius” and “Good Morning Starshine” has a terrifying alternate: the tragic story of a young Vietnam native in “Walking In Space” (dubbed by Betty Buckley) and “3-5-0-0,” Twarp’s brutal, encased-in-black dance number under the Washington Monument that lists the weaponries and brutalities of war. And while the stage musical ends with Claude’s death, Berger’s fate in Hair is arguably even more chilling, as all the freedoms he’s spent the entire movie extolling are completely wiped away.
Forman lets the final song, “Let The Sun Shine In,” illustrate that terror, that tragedy—but the film travels to an unlikely and ultimately positive closing note, with the activists storming the White House, protesting an unfair and unpopular war. The camera pulls back to reveal a swarm of people almost too huge to fathom, joyously united in protest, an American flag flying at center. Forman, who grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia, later remarked that “Hair the musical was an act of freedom for me as well. Freedom trumped everything. I was amazed at how free this country was, that it could look at itself in the mirror and see its own dark side.”
Today’s Black Lives Matter protests are more passionate and committed to action, less focused on the peace-and-love rallies of decades prior. But the activist goals are the same: justice for the oppressed, fighting for individual rights against a tyrannical authoritarian society. As Forman’s final image in Hair amplifies, the hippies understood that standing up for what you believe in is about the most patriotic thing you can do.