Remember the psychedelic rainbow happy flower children who dropped out of school, work, war and society? Smokin’ grass, droppin’ acid — dressin’ like gypsies — long hair, not much underwear — proud to be poor, mad about the war — listenin’ to rock and roll. What happened to them?
Conjure up a 1969 bearded, tie-dyed, bell-bottomed, beaded Woodstock hippie, and then add about 40 years. What’s he like now?
“Saint Misbehavin” is the transformative story of Hugh Romney, a military volunteer who turned into a rebelliously expressive, handsome, athletic-looking poet performing at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe. He consorted with the likes of the Beat Poets, including Ken Kesey, and at one point shared his upstairs room and typewriter with a young folksinger who tapped out the first draft of “A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall.”
Romney came up with the idea of alternating music with poetic recitations at the café. Here his association with those who would become famous began. He ended up opening shows for Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and Peter, Paul and Mary. Lenny Bruce became his manager and had him eventually travel out to California.
“Saint Misbehavin’” is a glimpse into the good side of the hippie era. Romney became the MC of Woodstock and his persona epitomized a generation devoted to peace, love and harmony. His vision of an idealized society manifested itself with life on a hog farm commune and a bus trip across Europe to Katmandu as well as entertaining kids with cancer and establishing a camp for disadvantaged children.
With his whimsical yet serious activity, Romney accepted a new name. He had fallen asleep on the stage when BB King came forward to perform and serendipitously asked him if he was Wavy Gravy. Sleepily, Romney answered in the affirmative and the name stuck. Gravy, Wavy Gravy.
Part Pied Piper and part inspired peacenik, Gravy walked his talk, creating a foundation with Larry Brilliant (yes, real name) to help eradicate blindness throughout the third world. Radically anti-war and passionately inclusive, Wavy now prays to all the great religions and a variety of historical figures who have inspired him on his life path.
What was daily life like at the hippie commune? Was there rampant polygamy, cynicism, personality crises, infighting, substance abuse, basic chaos and squalor? Or did they truly find peace, love and harmony? What about Wavy’s only son, Howdy Do-good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop Romney, who changed his name to Jordan the first day he legally could?
Upon reflection, what were the positives and harms of his involvement with drugs, the hippie counter-culture and radical activism?
We don’t get all the answers, but we do get some. This delightfully optimistic bio-doc turns out to be an upbeat, inspiring story. It is also instructive to all of the aging hippies about what we should be doing now.
Before closing, an important point to make is that while Gravy has done much to promote Good in the world, the true saint in this film may be Jahanara Romney, his admittedly behind-the-scenes practical wife of 45 years. With choked up tender passion, she says with admiration, “He’s the most heroic person I have ever met in my entire life. He’s my teacher and I’m his protector.”
Director: Michelle Esrick
Executive Producers: D.A. Pennebaker and John Pritzker
Producer: David Becker
Cinematography: Daniel B. Gold
Runtime: 87 minutes
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