“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks, Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud – but there is that slim slice of sublime. In this space, we’ve talked about slapstick comedy, high-toned drama, quality animation, blood-curdling horror, spectacular science fiction, and more besides. We get to do that because the Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – these rare gems last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.
The film version of the musical Hair very easily could’ve been a disaster. Filmed ten years after the show was a sensation on Broadway, many felt its time had passed – the Vietnam War had ended, the Watergate scandal had forever tarnished the reputation of government, and the Summer of Love had given way to the dark allure of Charles Manson and Altamont. But in one of those rare-as-true-love occurrences, Milos Forman was given the chance to direct, in large part based on his success with One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest several years prior. (George Lucas was originally given the chance to direct the film, but turned it down to concentrate on developing American Graffiti. Think about that sometime.) Forman was the right choice. His upbringing in Communist Czechoslovakia had left him with a yearning for stories about freedom and he found himself deeply attracted to the love-rock musical. In fact, he said of Hair that, “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.”
The original show had powerful songs, but the plot was, quite frankly, a chaotic mess. The film version is drastically different from the stage show – songs are re-orchestrated or cut altogether and the plot is radically altered – and it works, quite possibly better than the original stage show. The 1960s counterculture was already waning at the time of filming – had Forman insisted on filming Hair as a cinematic version of the stage show, the result may well have been a weak, dated nostalgia piece. Instead, Forman’s version is saved from that ignoble fate by a plot that promotes idealism while not letting anyone – Establishment or hippie love-children – entirely off the hook.
In the stage version, Claude is already a member of the hippie tribe. Changing his backstory to being an “aw, shucks” farm boy who comes to the Big Apple to be inducted into the Army and centering the film around this young man who is an outsider to both New York in general and the hippies in particular, was a stroke of genius.
Shortly after arriving in the Big Apple, Claude meets Berger (played by Treat Williams), who is the de facto leader of a loosely-formed tribe of young hippies living in the park, and is smitten by the gorgeous Sheila (played by a very young Beverly D’Angelo), who is riding her horse through the park. After a few adventurous days and nights with the Tribe that he will never forget, Claude turns his back on the hippie life and goes ahead with his plans to join the army. He is shipped out to Nevada and the Tribe (which now includes his society girlfriend, Sheila) goes to see him. Hijinks and pranks ensue as the Tribe works to get Claude and Sheila together, but war is not a song-and-dance number and one soldier is as good as another when a transport plane has to be filled.
Forman’s admiration for youth culture shines throughout the film and he was careful to keep his characters from becoming stereotypes. Also, much of the lasting success of Hair is due to the immense talent of choreographer Twyla Tharp who manages to create disciplined, yet joyful, large-scale dance numbers. Here’s the opening number to show you what I mean. (However, I don’t think Tharp gets credit for the dancing police horses. Then again, if anyone could teach horses to dance . . .)
Treat Williams plays Berger with a certain confidence that manages to never cross the line into smugness. He’s likable, energetic, and good-hearted – and he can sing! All of that just makes it so much worse when he realizes that, indeed, he is Claude.
Living as we do in the era of the all-volunteer military, it’s easy to forget the dread hold the draft had on America in the late 1960s. While the system was supposed to be a random lottery, like all systems, money, power, and family connections could often find a way to allow a “promising young man” to rack up multiple deferments. (Examples include Vice President Dick Cheney, who received 5 deferments. Donald Trump also received five. Further, Rush Limbaugh was found unfit for service due to – um, well, something not especially suitable for dinner conversation.) Blue-collar, working class, and flat-out poor folks made up far more than their just percentage of the troops we sent to fight a war far away. (Former House Majority leader Tom DeLay actually explained his failure to serve by saying, “So many minority youths had volunteered that there was literally no room for patriotic folks like myself.” This is a quote that simply leaves me shaking my head at its sheer level of tone deafness.) While I don’t blame anyone for finding any way to get out of that war that they could, the fact is that someone had to go in their place and a large percentage of those “someones” were poor men without family connections. And I distrust non-soldiers screaming about the necessity of scorched-earth war policies.
Don’t be fooled by the trappings of ripped bell bottoms and mismatched love beads. Hair is as relevant today as ever it was. Many Americans to this day can’t explain coherently why we were in Vietnam and what we accomplished; traits we unfortunately seem to share in our current “boots on the ground” operations.
At the conclusion of Hair, at least for Berger, perhaps the rest is silence. But that is not true for the rest of us, and Hair demands that we carry on with the knowledge we possess. Hair demands that we honor the energy of youth, even as we may disagree with some of their ideals and actions. If America is truly a country of the people, by the people, and for the people, our decision-makers must respect the people they’re willing to send to fight and die. And if they don’t, they shouldn’t really be surprised when the people storm the gates. For illustrating this with joy and insistence, Hair is worthy of your time. Add to it the final song with its melding of despair with hope, and you have a hands-down member of the Ten Percent.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (spring 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.