Hair was the surprise film that Miloš Forman directed as a follow-up to the runaway success of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is still one of the few films to win the Oscars in the five most sought-after categories: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. As with a lot of Forman’s films, Hair is about individuality against a backdrop of oppression, something he knew all too well from leaving his native Czechoslovakia in 1968 after the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion.
The film is loosely based on the zeitgeisty Broadway musical hit of 1968, which played and played in various cities and productions well into the ’70s. The film itself takes many liberties with the original material, especially with cutting numerous musical numbers out of the film. The writers of the musical, Gerome Ragni and James Rado, were incredibly unhappy with the film, going as far as saying “any resemblance between the 1979 film and the original Biltmore version, other than some of the songs, the names of the characters, and a common title, eludes us.” Despite this, it’s still one of Forman’s most interesting and enduring films, although a lesser production than some of his other American films.
When the film was being made, a full decade had passed since the original musical premiered and shocked the nation. Due to this fact, it already had become something of a period piece. This actually suits the narrative, because it’s about this naive young man, Claude Hooper Bukowski (John Savage), drifting through the counter culture at the end of the ’60s and everything that comes with that, from the hippies, Vietnam war draft, protests in the streets, sex, drugs, rock & roll, free love, the start of the women’s movement and gay rights, etc.
Hair remains one of the better musicals to come out during the New Hollywood of the ’70s. It was not the best time for the genre. Many tried (including Martin Scorsese), but nobody came closer than Bob Fosse when it came to reinventing the genre with a cynical edge. Hair has a both joyous and cynical finale, which was partially written for the film but uses the big show stopper “Let the Sunshine In” from the original show. It was also expertly photographed by Miroslav Ondříček, who had been one of Forman’s closest collaborators ever since their Czechoslovakian years. Their final collaboration would end up being Valmont in 1989.
The disc from BFI isn’t particularly heavy on extras directly related to the film itself, but it’s interesting nonetheless for including short films on hippies and psychedelic culture of the late ’60s. The one that is more connected to the film is Nicholas Ray in Conversation, which was recorded in 1969, as Nick Ray had a small role in Hair as The General. Although he obviously doesn’t discuss Hair, it’s a nice listen for Nick Ray freaks. The first pressing includes a booklet with new writing on the film by Ellen Cheshire, a new interview with the film’s screenwriter Michael Weller, and an essay on director Miloš Forman by Kieron McCormack.