There’s a big difference between “seeing” and “watching.” You “watch” a movie on your own, in your home, passively. You “see” a movie in a theater, with an audience, actively. I think that dissonance is part of what makes adapting plays and musicals for film so tricky. Theatre is meant to be seen live, in person, and surrounded by other bodies, where film is built for a more individual experience. So: movie musicals originally built for the stage need to work harder than other kinds of movies not to become weird and voyeuristic. For that reason and more, Hair (1979) does a really bad job at maintaining the energy and freedom of its source material.
Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical premiered in 1967 in New York City, making it absolutely contemporary to its subject matter. The hippies onstage could conceivably talk to hippies in the audience about the issues that mattered to them in that moment, including (but not limited to) racial justice, sexual freedom, and the ongoing war in Vietnam. Hair the movie wasn’t released until 1979, and — barely a decade later — it already feels like a period piece and a confusing emblem of a completely different time.
And 1979 was a completely different time! The war ended in 1975; those original hippies aged out of not trusting anyone over 30; a peanut farmer was president instead of a detested war criminal; and the youth movement calmed down. Making Hair in the late ’70s meant director Miloš Forman had to reach backward instead of reaching across the aisle. What was so exciting and current about Hair becomes frivolous and vapid when made in the past tense. The question becomes “what was the point?” instead of “why don’t you join us?”
The Rent movie is bad in the same way. Chris Columbus focused attention on the selfish nihilism of Rent’s poor-by-choice, privileged bohemian “artists,” which, fair. They suck. But he also cut songs that focused on the public health crisis that contextualized their behavior and the musical itself. When Rent premiered on Broadway in 1996, people were still dying in droves from AIDS: an epidemic publicly ignored because it disproportionately affected queer, Black, and poor communities. By the movie’s 2005 release, AIDS was no longer a sure death sentence, and the massive movement to control it (comprised of those affected queer, Black, and poor youth) had already been written out of history. Rent is in itself imperfect, but the movie totally misses the point by placing modern judgment on past values.
On stage, Hair is welcoming and warm; both productions I’ve seen embodied the spirit of the original. They also both involved the audience in the performance (in one, an actor handed his pants to an audience member for safekeeping at the beginning of the show; in the other, my best friend and I were seated on the stage, and we each briefly became Berger’s “Donna” in “Donna”). In lieu of an actual audience, the movie relies on Claude and Sheila as surrogates — they’re both hippies in the musical, but they’re straight-laced normies in the movie until the hippies corrupt them.
Hair the movie really likes the idea of hippies as corrupting influences. Sheila sings “Easy to Be Hard” in the musical about Berger, who cares more about the movement than he cares about his individual loves and friendships. In the movie, the song is reassigned to Hud’s wife, who does not exist in the musical. Instead of a thoughtful, hippy-to-hippy call out, the song becomes an outsider’s call for responsibility and common sense. It’s the most sympathetic moment in the movie, and it may as well be used to tell Hud to cut his hair, take a bath, and enlist in the military, you smelly hippy.
Speaking of which: Hair the musical is vehemently anti-war, and the movie is only sort of anti-war. The biggest threat to public health in the 1960s was not hippies, and it was not LSD or marijuana. It was the war in Vietnam, which is simplified to a sort of shrug, a sort of “what can you do?”, and a sort of intangible backdrop for a story that required deeper critical engagement. The big reveal at the end of the musical is Claude in his uniform, ultimately forced to succumb to the military-industrial complex he hates so much. Inexplicably, half of Hair the movie takes place on an army base, where we see Claude and his platoon march around, preparing dutifully to go overseas. In the musical, war is senseless, but there is hope that the crisis can be contained with direct action; in the movie, war is an inevitability, and time has told that direct action failed. The film’s postwar judgment of wartime attitudes is unsympathetic and — frankly — very square.