Seeing as how this disappointing film’s source material is, arguably, the quintessential counterculture musical, it’s impossible to say that making Hair was a wasted endeavor. After all, preserving the stage show’s energy on film, and spreading the stage show’s provocative messages to audiences who had not seen the musical in its original form, was both inevitable and worthwhile. The problem (or one of them, anyway) is that the translation process took too long. Once Hair hit cinemas, the milieu of the stage show—antiwar protests, hippies dropping acid and experimenting with free love, the Vietnam War claiming a sickening number of human lives—had slipped into history. As a result, Hair was already a museum piece even when it was new. Still, if one ignores the unfortunate nature of the film’s appearance within the public sphere, there’s a lot to enjoy in Hair, even though the film cannot be ranked among the most artistically successful stage-to-screen transpositions. The acting is heartfelt, the singing and dancing are powerful, director Milos Forman’s handling of material is imaginative and thoughtful, and the inherent humanism of the original stage show shines through. Thus, while the elements never cohere, something interesting happens in nearly every scene.
That said, it’s tempting to castigate the filmmakers for making significant changes to the source material, such as altering characterizations and dropping songs (or pieces of songs). The movie’s story feels overly schematic, which, in turn, makes the final scenes come across as overly strident. Moreover, there’s a gigantic plot hole in the middle of the movie’s story, which makes the whole business of tinkering with success seem even more foolhardy in retrospect. In sum, had the filmmakers improved on the show, only purists would gripe, but that’s not the case here, because the movie’s narrative flaws are apparent to all viewers.
In any event, the movie’s story revolves around Claude (John Savage), a straight-arrow Midwesterner who arrives in Manhattan on the way to an Army training camp. Claude meets a group of exuberant hippies, led by the charismatic George (Treat Williams), and Claude also becomes infatuated with a pretty New Yorker from upper-crust society, Sheila (Beverly D’Angelo). As the story progresses, Claude questions the legitimacy of the Vietnam War as he becomes entranced with the ideals and lifestyle of his new longhaired compatriots, but ironic tragedy eventually casts a dark cloud over the peace-and-love revelry. The movie bursts with extraordinary music, including the familiar hits “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” “Easy to be Hard,” and “Hair.” (The less said about “Good Morning Starshine,” the better.) Savage’s brand of twitchy sensitivity works fairly well, since he makes Claude seem uncomfortable in nearly every circumstance, but Williams easily steals the movie with his dark intensity, whether acting in straight dramatic scenes or singing in musical passages. Forman fills the screen with activity and color, employing dynamic choreography by Twyla Tharp, and the cast features such powerhouse singers as Nell Carter and Ellen Foley, so even if the leads sometimes underwhelm in terms of vocals, the overall musicality of the piece is impressive.
Given its arrival in cinemas so long after the underlying subject matter was central in American life, it’s arguable whether Hair would have enjoyed greater impact if the filmmakers had delivered the stage show intact. Nonetheless, since so many of the changes are problematic, it’s important to remember that this movie is, ultimately, an adaptation rather than a direct recording. In other words, this Hair isn’t the Hair that captured the public’s imagination. For that, better to catch one of the stage show’s myriad revivals.