Review- “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie”
Although best known as the MC at the Woodstock Festival and as the namesake for a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, the man once known as Hugh Romney is much, much more than that. As a former Greenwich Village poet and folk singer, Romney was not only Bob Dylan’s former roommate, but also the opening act for the likes of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk and one-third of a short-lived trio that included the rock cult figure Tiny Tim and legendary street performer Moondog. These are just a few of the interesting facts we learn in Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie, director Michelle Esrick’s loving portrait of the self-described “flower geezer.” But, as with the hippie stereotypes, such tidbits don’t tell the full story of who Wavy Gravy really is.
The film begins in the present, giving viewers a glance at everyday life inside of Wavy’s Hog Farm commune over 45 years after it was founded. From there, we are told about his early career as a poet in New York’s legendary Greenwich Village beatnik scene. Despite writing some promising poetry, Romney, as he was known then, nevertheless switched fields to become a socially relevant and edgy comedian a la Lenny Bruce. Afterwards, we follow him to California where he joins Ken Kesey’s “Merry Prankters,” forms the Hog Farm, and is given the name “Wavy Gravy” at the Texas International Pop Festival by none other than B.B. King. Eventually, through some crazy series of events, we end up at Woodstock, where Wavy served as both the MC and head of security.
Woodstock was the pinnacle of Wavy’s mainstream popularity, yet it is the remainder of the film which explains how Wavy has really made a difference in the world. The Wavy Gravy in the second half of the film isn’t an aspiring artist or poet. He is a humble philanthropist dedicating his life to improving our world and to making those around him happy. Take for instance his noble 1970 bus trip from Paris to Bangladesh to bring food and medicine to the impoverished. During the film’s most touching moment, Wavy is seen in archival footage blowing bubbles and playing games with Pakistani children and for just that instant it seems that world peace could really be possible. The Bangladesh trip eventually led to the formation of the Seva Foundation, an organization dedicated to curing cataract blindness in Tibet and other parts of the world.
Which is not to say that he has neglected the issues here at home. Instead, he has used his signature brand of clownish humor to illuminate common sense solutions in a way most activists wouldn’t dare to. The “Nobody for President” campaign in particular still resonates today. (“Who is lowering your taxes?” “Nobody!” “Who is fighting for you?” “Nobody!,” etc.) Then, of course, there is his volunteer work as a clown at a Berkeley children’s hospital and Camp Winnarainbow, a summer camp Wavy founded where he does everything in his power to put a smile on children’s faces. And we can’t forget the numerous demonstrations, arrests, and beatings by police officers.
As can be expected of a film like this, the soundtrack is comprised of wonderful music from the like of Dylan, the Dead, Dave von Ronk, Joni Mitchell and others. This culminates with “Basic Human Needs,” a song penned by Wavy himself and brilliantly performed by Steve Earle, Jackson Browne, Dr. John, Bob Weir, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Bonnie Raitt. Many of these performers also appear throughout the film itself, as does Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and the late folk singer Odetta.
Given it’s subject matter, perhaps the most surprising thing about Esrick’s film is how apolitical it is. There is a purpose and goal here, but it is a moral one, not a political one. Never do we hear Wavy or any of the other assorted luminaries who appear throughout singling out one politician, one party, or one policy. Instead they strive for a system build on inclusiveness and fueled by love. As one of the young children at Wavy’s camp says, “we even have a Republican here.”
There are those who would write Wavy off as an idealistic old man who is forty years behind the times and has no foundation in the workings of the real world. I beg to differ. I’m of the opinion that Wavy is still ahead of his time, but unlike Jerry Rubin and the majority of the counterculture, he didn’t get a real job and a haircut and give up the dream. As a result, he is perhaps the last major voice of the hippie generation and, thus, more important in this era of apathy than ever before.
In this day and age, the Nobel Peace Prize has become meaningless. What began as a way to honor grassroots activists like Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa who worked to make this world a better place has become a political award given to likes of Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama. A few years ago, there was a movement to get the Nobel Committee to honor Pete Seeger and, more recently, John Mellencamp has begun a campaign to give Willie Nelson the prize for his work with Farm Aid and other organizations. While I fully support both campaigns, after seeing this film I feel that Wavy Gravy should definitely be in the running as well.
Saint Misbehavin’ will open at New York’s IFC Center on December 8th and Wavy will be appearing at the screening on the 8th and 9th along with other special guests. It will open in Woodstock, NY on the 11th. Find out more about the film HERE.
To see what you can do to help Wavy’s Seva Foundation, click HERE.