September 3, 2008

Vietnam, the Draft, a Milestone Musical and a Courthouse Full of Clowns: Hair and Chicago 10


Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): Hair ****
Chicago 10 ***

A film-loving friend of mine insists that the first half-hour of Milos Forman's version of the musical Hair constitutes the best 30 minutes in movie history. That's quite a claim, but after watching the film again recently, I'm amazed at how very well it has held up--and not simply those first 30 minutes. From the quiet beginning, as John Savage's "Claude" leaves the family farm and heads for the army's NYC induction center, Forman is on track. As Claude's bus nears its destination and the New York skyline comes into view, the brass instruments suddenly surge on the soundtrack, and the first of many magical moments occurs.

Forman was wise to keep his film a period piece. Though made a dozen years after the time it depicts, the movie is so very much of that time that there is really no way to "update" it. Burning drafts cards, be-ins, the long hair and the hippie attire are so specific to their day that I cannot imagine any way to recreate them for another era. The talented director handles the drug-hazed “happening” in Central Park in fast and frisky style, full of surprise and delight. Forman also found a way to bring his film to a meaningful and moving close – something that neither the off-Broadway original nor the glitzier, shallow Broadway transfer ever came close to. (The just-concluded summer revival of the musical in Central Park, greeted with rapturous reviews and packed audiences, is now planned for a move to Broadway, where, for $100-plus, audiences can either recapture their youth or be introduced to a pivotal time in their parents or grandparents lives.)

The songs of Hair-- "Aquarius," "Good Morning Starshine," "Easy to Be Hard", "Black Boys/White Boys" and so many more -- are at this point standards, and Forman's cast, which includes Annie Golden, Treat Williams (in rare long-haired fashion), Beverly D'Angelo, Cheryl Barnes, Melba Moore, the late Nell Carter and Savage is sterling. Twyla Tharp's choreography, including a lovely moment with mounted police on their steeds, is everything a modern dance aficionado could want.

I do wish the DVD transfer given the film via MGM Home Entertainment had been a better one. The image is less than sharp, and though the disc includes both a pan-and-scan full-screen and a letterboxed version, the letterbox doesn't come close to filling the screen and "zooming" simply lessens even further the picture quality. If ever a film deserved the "Criterion" treatment, it's this one.


Brett Morgen's decision to use animation in a good portion of his documentary -- Chicago 10 -- about the Yippee-led demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and the bizarre court trial that followed might initially seem perverse. Eventually, I suspect, you'll find it works pretty well. Morgen uses animation mostly in the courtroom scenes that have (and had, as I recall, at the actual time of the trial) a circus quality -- foisted as much by the loony lefties on trial (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale, among others) as by the loony "rightie" (also named Hoffman) wearing judicial robes and sitting on the bench. In addition, Morgen plugs animation into some of Abbie Hoffman's speeches-as-stand-up-comedy, and the effect is rather like watching an animated version of Bob Fosse's Lenny.

It is difficult to imagine just what the younger generation might make of all this. There's no draft now, and this absence of threat to the lives of our young is keenly felt, I should think, only by those old enough to remember the threat when it was present and impacted our lives. Morgen has been faulted by some for not linking the generations and providing more of a context. This did not bother me personally, since I (as will anyone 60 or over) provided my own. Chicago 10 effectively uses court transcripts (and the voices of several major actors mouthing this dialog), intercut with actual footage of the demonstration leading up to the night of bloodshed when the Chicago police went off the deep end, as did those in Paris during the student riots that same year. Morgen moves his movie along briskly, with plenty of humor (of course, it's built-in for him). If I find Chicago 10 a lot more edifying than the documentarian's earlier The Kid Stays in the Picture, this probably has to do with the subject matter: Robert Evans vs. the Yippees and the 1968 Democratic Convention? No contest.

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Posted by cphillips at September 3, 2008 10:40 AM

A film-loving friend of mine insists that the first half-hour of Milos Forman's version of the musical Hair constitutes the best 30 minutes in movie history.

Was this me?? Heh, I adore Hair, great review of both, James!

Posted by: Erin D. at September 3, 2008 4:05 PM

Nah. It's my friend Amy Stavis, the editor and publisher of Tableware Today magazine (in New Jersey), whom I happened to have dinner with a few days prior to writing my review. But I am so glad to learn that YOU love the movie, too. You think they'll ever release it in a REAL wide-screen version with a top-grade DVD transfer? Here's hoping....

Posted by: james van maanen at October 22, 2008 7:39 PM
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