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Wavy Gravy in SAINT MISBEHAVIN': THE WAVY GRAVY MOVIE (Photo: Ripple Effect Films/Argot Pictures)

Directed by Michelle Esrick
Produced by
Esrick & David Becker 
Released by Ripple Effect Films/Argot Pictures
USA. 87 min. Not Rated

Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie affectionately recalls how the memorable M.C. at the Woodstock Festival (the one who warned about the bad acid) became much more than a footnote to the 1960’s counterculture. He’s serious fun in this bio-documentary on the role of the clown/fool in society.

He was still known as Hugh Romney when he first came to New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s to declaim his poetry. (His childhood is very briefly seen in photographs, with no mention of his adolescence or military service in the 1950s). Paralleling recent visual memoirs of the Village scene, including Jim Brown’s Pete Seeger: The Power of Song and Mary Wharton’s Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, he palled around with the young Bob Dylan, who wrote out the lyrics to “A Hard Rain Is Gonna Fall” on his typewriter. But he also learned how to riff on words, opening for jazz artists, like John Coltrane, and stand-up comic Lenny Bruce, who was his manager. Director Michelle Esrick found illustrative clips of Washington Square Park and environs full of guitar pickers and singers as well as drawing on Romney’s extensive scrapbooks.

He headed to California in 1962 and joined up with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, as described in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and began wearing a fool’s cap in his performances when their psychedelic bus stopped to spread the love. He speaks eloquently about the model of the Shakespearean fool, who serves as a voice of warning, as he describes participating in more and more protests against the Vietnam War, incurring beatings from the police that brought on permanent back injuries and several operations.

Romney and his wife explain how the Pranksters gradually became a Californian commune known as the Hog Farm, attracting so much attention that they started staging participatory entertainments for the hippie tourists, and several seem to have come with film cameras. The memories of adults who grew up as children in the commune refreshingly contradict stereotyped impressions of an undisciplined lifestyle, including Romney’s sonthough he changed his given name, Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop, to Justin as soon as he legally could. For seven years, the couple led a caravan of buses in clown parades around the country to put a political philosophy of nonviolent protest to work. That led the organizers of the Woodstock Festival to designate them as security in a “Please-force.”

At a subsequent festival in Texas, he was formally christened Wavy Gravy for his on-stage antics by blues legend B. B. King. (He and his commune have benefited from Ben & Jerry’s promise of a lifetime of free ice cream for those whom a flavor is named.) After another hospitalization, he started dressing more as a clown, first to entertain children, and then he discovered that cops wouldn’t beat a clown at political demonstrations. He takes his clowning seriously—he’s seen shopping for noses. For decades, he has run Camp Winnarainbow to pass on the fools’ errand to younger generations.

This genial film also stresses Gravy’s pantheistic spiritual side. He daily prays to every possible deity and pop culture icon to be the best possible Wavy Gravy he can be. The film bogs down toward the end about his charitable activities for an international anti-blindness organization that seems no different than any other do-good celebrity benefit, but stay through the credits. You’ll want to sing along with the all-star rendition of “Basic Human Needs” with friends Jackson Browne, Steve Earle, Maria Muldaur, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Weir, Bonnie Raitt’s slide guitar, and Dr. John’s stride piano. The song deserves to be acclaimed, and Wavy Gravy, too. Nora Lee Mandel
November 8, 2010



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