From the Stage to the Screen: Hair (Miloš Forman, 1979)

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For a movie blogger, I’m conscious that it’s quite surprising that I haven’t written about any films directed by the late Miloš Forman, the Czech movie director who had a brilliant career both in his home country and in the United States. Not a long time ago, I asked to my fellow bloggers on Twitter what were some films they haven’t dare writing about because they are such masterpieces and, therefore, they wouldn’t know where to start. While I named Rear Window and Sunset Boulevard, Miloš Forman’s films could serve as great examples as well. I mean, how do you describe perfectly the majesty of Amadeus? How do you discuss the cleverness of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? How can I discuss EVERYTHING I love about Hair?

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Well, this is going to change today and Hair is going to be the first Miloš Forman film I’ll review on my blog! This isn’t necessarily the film that initially comes to people’s mind when thinking about Forman but, believe me, there is a lot of interesting stuff to say about it, especially about its making. There’s also a more precise reason why I chose this particular film: Rebecca from Taking Up Room is hosting the Second Annual Broadway Bound Blogathon! The idea is to write about a film that has some connection with Broadway. Our host cites a few examples on her blog to help us:

  • Movies made about Broadway;
  • Movies made from Broadway shows;
  • Movies made into Broadway shows;
  • Performers, directors, writers, etc. who have worked in both Broadway and Hollywood.

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On my side, I went with the second option. Well, Hair was initially an off-Broadway production but it then moved to Broadway. We’ll come back to that later.

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The film version of Hair was released in 1979 (hippie culture was then already a thing of the past). It was adapted from the Broadway musical Hair: An American Tribal Love-Rock Musical by Gerome Ragni and James Rado that premiered off-Broadway in 1967 (another of the numerous reasons why this is my favourite year in history). There are major differences between the story presented in the Broadway musical and the one presented in the film but, for now, we’ll focus on the film.

The story

Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage) leaves Oklahoma for New York City to enlist in the army (the story takes place in the 60s during the Vietnam war). Arrived in Central Park, he meets a group of free-spirited hippies: George Berger (Treat Williams), Jeannie Ryan (Annie Golden), Woof (Donnie Dacus) and LaFayette « Hud » Johnson (Dorsey Wright). He also meets (well, see) Sheila Franklin (Beverly D’Angelo) a beautiful high society debutante who turns out to be a much more fun person that we would first think. Obviously, it’s love at first sight. Claude has a few days to spend in New York before living for the training camp in Nevada. With the company of Berger and the others, these  days are far from being boring. A lot of fun situations occur but this will lead our characters to one of the most upsetting movie endings ever. Yes, Hair is about the hippie culture but, most of all, it’s about the importance of friendship.

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The Age of Aquarius

I’ve always loved the song Aquarius and this is really what made me discover Hair. The first time I heard was via Forrest Gump, in which we can hear the rather esoteric version by The Fifth Dimension. But, I have to say, my favourite version is the film’s one. Being interested in the song (that pretty much happens to be the most famous one of the musical), I wanted to know where it came from. Not only it was from a Broadway musical but the musical was made into a film which made it more accessible! And it was directed by Miloš Forman! The trailer immediately made me want to see it and I remember watching it with my mother the first time. I LOVED it.

Aquarius is the song that introduces the film and its executed brilliantly. At the beginning of the film, Claude and his father (George Manos) are at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma. It’s early in the morning, the place is very quiet and foggy. We guess Claude must have lived a pretty calm life on the family farm. After saying goodbye to his father, Claude embarks on the bus, en-route for New York. And that’s when Aquarius quicks off. From there, we know we’re in for a dynamic treat. Renn Woods, her hair ornated with beautiful white flowers, beings to sing. Of all the singers in the film, we can easily say is one of those who has the best voice. She doesn’t play a major character, but, as Andy Warhol would say, she surely has her “15-minutes of glory” during this scene. We are then also introduced to Berger and his gang (Jeannie always chewing gum; therefore, I believe she’s my spirit animal). The choreographies for the film version were created by Twyla Tharp who also worked on Ragtime and Amadeus, both directed by Forman.

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I’m familiar with three versions of Aquarius: the original one, The Fifth Dimension’s one, and the film version. While the one sang by Renn Woods is my favourite, I believe they are all unique and all have their qualities. Let’s listen to them:

Original Broadway version sang by Ronnie Dyson.

The film version sang by Renn Woods

The Fifth Dimension version

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Off-Broadway to Broadway

For Hair, everything started in East Village, during a search for employment: James Rado and Gerome Ragni were two unemployed actors and its by looking for a job that they met each other. A fortunate encounter. East Village was a highly cultural center and ideas were not hard to find. Ragni and Rado created a musical celebrating the hippie counter-culture. After developing the show, the two fellows introduced it to Joseph Papp who accepted to present it at his Public Theatre, off-Broadway. Canadian Galt MacDermot was chosen to write the score accompanying Rado and Ragni’s lyrics. Writing music for the theatre was then a novelty for MacDermot (although he had composed for some venues in Montreal, his hometown). The show first opened at the Public Theatre on October 17, 1967, and was scheduled for fifteen previews and fifty performances. It then moved near Broadway at the Cheetah nightclub from December 1967 to January 1968. Producer Michael Butler came across Hair while it was initially playing at the Public Theatre and, enthusiastic, eventually became its producer. The play moved for good on Broadway in April 1968 where it played for 1 750 performances. Tom O’Horgan directed the Broadway version. It then became a true impressive theatrical experience. Followed performances in various cities of the USA and Europe, including London where the show was presented for no less than 1 997 performances.

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James Rado, Gerome Ragni and Galt MacDermot

The reception of Hair was mixed. On a side, medias opened to novelty and innovation admired its authenticity. New York Time journalist Clive Barnes praised its frankness. On another side, a more conservative league of journalists criticised its controversy; mainly created by a nude scene, rock & roll music, its message, and its sensationalism.

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Forman discovers Hair

Miloš Forman attended the very first off-Broadway presentation of Hair in 1967. As he explains in an interview conducted in Cannes by Christian Defaye for Spécial Cinéma, Forman didn’t understand a word of the show back then as his English was still poor, but he was struck by the music, the spirit, and the energy. Backstage, he immediately informed James Rado, Gerome Ragni, and Galt MacDermot about his interest in making a film out of their musical. So, Forman’s interest for Hair was present long before the film was released in 1979. When he informed the creator of Hair about his interest in it, he simply asked them to consider him to direct in case a film was eventually made. The idea was vaguely launched. George Lucas was also approached to direct but he preferred to dedicate himself to his second film ever made: American Graffiti.

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Gerome Ragni, Milos Forman and Treat Williams

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Casting

Interestingly, a challenge for both the stage production and the film production of Hair was to find an adequate casting. Apart from James Rado and Gerome Ragni who respectively played the roles of Bukowski and Berger, other part had to be filled. Director Tom O’Horgan explains that they were looking for real rock singers who were part of the street scene. However, these people didn’t care for the theatre or, had no idea what Broadway was. Diane Keaton, who was then relatively unknown, sang White Boys/Black Boys in the original Broadway version. However, by the time the film was produced, she was too much of a big star to be given such a small role, so the part went to Ellen Foley.

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On his side, Forman interviewed more than a thousand youngsters for seven of the main roles. As he explained to Michael Drucker on the tv show Les rendez-vous du dimanche, his goal was that everyone seen on screen could be able to sing. Most of these actors were relatively unknown except for John Savage who had been seen the year before in The Deer Hunter, another film taking place during the Vietnam War.  Savage was not the first choice for the role of Claude Bukowski, Milos Forman initially wanted  Brad Dourif for the part (he had starred in his film One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest). Interestingly, John Savage was part of the distribution of the stage production of One Flew Over A Cuckoo’s Nest and had won a Drama Circle Award for his performance. Forman discovered Annie Golden who plays Jeannie when he saw her performing with the punk rock band The Shirts at the Bowery Rock ‘n’ Roll nightclub. Cheryl Barnes who plays  Hud’s fiancee was discovered via the stage productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell.

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Cheryl Barnes

Madonna (then unknown) and Bruce Springsteen were among the numerous people who auditioned for parts in the film.

Melba Moore and Ronnie Dyson who sing solo in the 3-5-0-0 sequence were also part of the original Broadway production.

My thoughts on the casting of Hair are generally favorable. I like to think that the spotlight was put on lesser-known but talented actors that knew perfectly how to embody the essence of their characters. Sadly, we don’t hear so much about them anymore, although they are still working in the film/tv industry or in the music industry. For example, Annie Golden was part of the distribution of the popular TV show Orange Is the New Black from Season 1 to 5. What might be the most interesting in the interpretation of the characters is the strong contrast between the future soldier Claude Bukowski who can be seen in all of John Savage’s seriousness, but who knows how to let it go once in a while, how to mix himself in a crowd of free-spirited hippies, discover new experiences, joys of life, and nonchalance. These elements being embodied by the fun, dynamic, and eccentric acting game of Treat Williams, Annie Golden, Dorsey Wright, and Don Dacus. On her side, Beverly D’Angelo is, at first, very humble but this is only to hide Sheila’s strong desire of liberty that will show sooner or later in the film.

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Stage vs. screen

The major distinction between Hair the on-stage musical and Hair the musical film is the modification of the plot. The songs remind the same (although a few were cut from the original version). Some elements of the story were, however, changed. For example, in the stage production, Claude is not a guy from Oklahoma but one of the leaders of the hippie gang who eventually gets enrolled in the army. Forman explained that it was necessary to make a few changes because, on stage, there’s always something to see and the characters can focus on the songs to express themselves. But, in a film, sooner or later the camera will have to show the characters on different angles, create close-ups to give dynamism to the picture, etc. And all those shots must be justified. The general distinction between the thematics is that the Broadway musical embodies the idea of the US peace movement and the film focuses on the hippie carefree life itself.

Consequently, the creators of Hair weren’t happy with the film adaptation. Yes, there are major differences but if we forget the comparison, the film itself is quite good.

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More music

The music surely is one of my favourite elements of Hair. Well, that sort of helps you to appreciate a musical! I remember listening to the original Broadway soundtrack non-stop. The songs are unique in their own way, represent the spirit of the hippie culture, are full of life, funny, ironic, and meaningful as well. I find the voices particularly interesting. Some of them are “weird” but it adds to the idea that these are songs performed in a spirit of fun and liberty and not for an audience at the opera. We agree the story could work without some of these songs but the film just wouldn’t be the same.

Let’s take a look at some of my favourites! We’ve already watched Aquarius but there’s more.

These are not in order of preference but in order of appearance in the film:

Manchester, England/I’m Black/Ain’t Got No

I Got Life

Hair (theme song)

Hare Krishna (ok, probably the weirdess moment of the film. But I love it!)

Black Boys/White Boys

Walking in Space

Easy to be Hard (listen to this beautiful voice!)

3-5-0-0 (notice that the man who plays the general is no other than movie director Nicholas Ray. Sadly, he died a few months after the film was released).

Goodmorning Starshine (this is just the perfect feel-good scene)

The Flesh Failure/Let the Sunshine In

This might be my favourite song in the whole film. Here, I only linked an audio clip since this song is sung at the end of the film and I don’t want you to watch it if you haven’t seen the film yet!

Yes, I love many of Hair songs!

***

Although the originals creators of Hair weren’t happy with the film version, most of the critics were favourable. Interestingly, considering that the golden age of musicals film was then over, two great musicals were released in 1979: this one and Bob Fosse’s All that Jazz, two colorful films. Hair was nominated for Best Picture- Musical or Comedy at the 37th Golden Globes Awards and Treat Williams was nominated for New Star of the Year In a Motion Picture-Male. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 1980 Cesar Awards.

If you haven’t seen Hair, please see it as soon as possible. It’s a film that makes you understand a lot of things, it shares important values and, even if it’s kind of weird at some points, you have to look beyond that to understand its genius. After all, it wasn’t directed by a “nobody”. It was Miloš Forman, who, at the time, yet had to direct another of his most acclaimed films: Amadeus.

Many thanks to Rebecca for hosting this great blogathon. I’m a bit late in my posting but better late than never! I invite you to check the rest of the entries here.

See you!

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Sources:

“Hair (film).” Wikipedia. 16 May 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair_(film). Accessed Jun 3, 2019.

“Hair (musical).” Wikipedia. 26 May 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hair_(musical). Accessed Jun 3, 2019.

“Hair (trivia).” IMDB. nd. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0079261/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv. Accessed Jun 3, 2019.

“Milos Forman- Hair (1979).” Youtube. uploaded by Les Archives de la RTS. 3 Februrary 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbnGhKsZLk8.

“Milos Forman ‘J’ai auditionné 1000 personnes pour Hair’|Archive INA.” Youtube. unloaded by INA Culture. 16 April 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBejH2PeIQw.

Shapiro, Nat, “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical”, CD booklet. 2009. CD-ROM. Sonny Music Entertainment.

 

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8 thoughts on “From the Stage to the Screen: Hair (Miloš Forman, 1979)

  1. You write well about this favorite movie. I saw the stage play in the early 70s and didn’t really get
    It, being young and sheltered. The movie brought it. My boyfriend at the time looked like Treat. I loved his walking down the dining room table toward Beverly! I feel a pang at the hopefulness we felt back then that the world could become loving. Still, we can again let the sun shine in and on us. I’m almost 70 and have so much hope and support for young people today.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I never really thought about seeing Hair, but this great review makes me want to–the music looks great. Thanks again for joining the blogathon. It’s always nice having your company! 🙂

    Like

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