Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie
A Film by Michelle Esrick
First Appeared in The Music Box, August 2009, Volume 16, #8
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Wed August 19, 2009, 11:30 PM CDT
Hugh Romney a.k.a Wavy Gravy is, perhaps, best known as the man who dressed like a clown and served as the emcee at Woodstock. Consequently, it would be easy to dismiss him as a mere casualty of the 1960s. Over the course of the past 40 years, however, he quietly has spent his time reducing complicated ideas and politics to their simplest essence. Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie documents the story of his life, yet it is more than just another biopic. It not only is a film that can rejuvenate a person’s belief in the power of the human spirit to be a force for positive change, but it also is a reminder — to paraphrase Mother Theresa — that grace and kindness come in many unusual disguises.
Michelle Esrick, the director of Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie, wisely chose to portray Romney as a person on a fascinating journey rather than simply as an icon of the counterculture. Like Gandhi, who famously intertwined his life and his message, Wavy Gravy has been a man on a mission. Throughout the past four decades, he hasn’t exactly produced a body of enduring art. Yet his daily life, as captured in the film, resonates like great poetry.
It must be admitted, however, that nothing Romney has said has been overly profound. His jokes might be cunning and insightful, but they aren’t outright hilarious. Likewise, his philosophy, when it is put into words, can be easily attacked as trite and Utopian. Nevertheless, as Romney is shown saying his morning prayers and venturing to the store to purchase wieners and ice cream, an extraordinary person is revealed, one who greets every situation as an adventure, a chance to play, and an opportunity to explore the human condition.
Romney’s optimism in the face of the direst situations — from the atrocities of Vietnam to curing unnecessary blindness in Nepal — as well as his commitment to helping others in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds would put most people to shame. It is impossible not to marvel at his unwavering ability to approach a situation from a fresh perspective, without ever getting mired in the cynicism and self-righteousness that often envelop longtime social activists.
Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie follows a rough chronology of Romney’s life, beginning with his early days in New York when he was a performance artist and an early confederate of Bob Dylan. Using a mixture of archival footage, interviews with his contemporaries, and Romney’s own reminiscences, Esrick paints a portrait of a young man who was on fire with energy and enthusiasm, the kinds that developed unfettered in the heady atmosphere of the Greenwich Village scene in the 1960s.
Romney began his career as an intellectual comedian in the tradition of Lenny Bruce. As the ’60s wore on, he moved to California, got married, and founded the Hog Farm, an experiment in communal living that still continues today. He and his fellow "hog farmers" famously provided security at Woodstock, and the experience of caring for and feeding 400,000 people over the weekend still resonates strongly with him. In effect, it gave Romney faith in the concept that people can change the world, if they are provided the right environment.
Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie also documents the many years that Romney spent traveling through Asia. Accompanied by a sizeable entourage, he provided medical care to those in need. The footage of this ragtag band riding brightly painted buses through India and Nepal was the highlight of the film. In the tiny hilltop villages where Dr. Larry Brilliant established makeshift hospital centers, Romney gave impromptu performances — using only bubbles and juggling balls as props. These scenes wordlessly celebrate the power of the human spirit more than any overblown speech by Bono or Sting ever could. The experience of roaming for seven years in a bus caravan was so powerful that Brilliant and Romney subsequently founded SEVA, an independent organization that continues to provide thousands of free eye operations annually around the globe.
So many films about social activists and cultural icons inevitably become egotistical exercises in myth-building. Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie never succumbs to these temptations. Romney is so human, humble, and in awe of everything that he has seen and done that it is impossible not to love him. Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie shines a light on mankind’s ability to improve conditions for everyone, and it empowers the masses to avoid the kinds of unnecessary compromises that frequently mitigate the full-force of philanthropic objectives.
If the job of a saint is to inspire, then Romney surely is one. He’s not pretty, his philosophies frequently make people uncomfortable because they are so rooted in common sense, and he says things that are downright corny. Yet, he is so unrepentantly optimistic and appears so unconditionally loving and enthusiastic about life that it’s hard to imagine that there is a person on the planet that he couldn’t befriend. Life is crazy, and things often seem to spiral out of reach and beyond control. For these reasons, Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie is a vital film. Anyone who doesn’t leave the theater feeling more empowered, compassionate, and ready to face life in all of its upheaval ought to see a doctor — or seek a clown — for help.
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box