Arts & Events
Film Review: Saint Misbehavin’
When I first heard there was a Wavy Gravy documentary in the works, I wondered what any movie could possibly add to understanding such a well-known and highly public figure. Making a doc about Wavy Gravy seemed on par with deciding to make a film about that beloved oak tree that’s been in your front yard forever — the one with the tire swing that generations of neighborhood kids have teetered over. It’s all love. What’s to know?
It turns out the film is filled with surprises — many of them very lofty ones. It’s a celluloid jack-in-the-box that also cranks out some of the best 60s-Era-music you would ever hope to hear — Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Joni Mitchell and a brand-new rock-gospelized rendition of Wavy’s anthem, “Basic Human Needs.” The fun continues with a flood of Wavy memories contributed by a pantheon of musical deities — Jackson Browne, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Odetta, Bonny Raitt — and a constellation of cultural heroes — Ram Dass, Michael Lang, Steve Ben Israel and the quietly eloquent Dr. Larry Brilliant.
Naturally, the film is filled with clown-car-loads of laughter but there also are surprising moments of steady, deep emotion — as when Wavy’s wife Jahanara tears up reflecting on their 45-years-and-counting adventure. Throughout its brisk 87-minutes, this film draws smiles and tears. But the tears are the kind that well up for the best of reasons — as a response to breathtaking avatars of ordinary people behaving like heroes and saints.
The film begins with a surprising gesture of transparency. The first frame shows the Berkeley street signs perched at the intersection that points towards Chez Gravy. The camera takes us inside Wavy’s brown-shingled two-story home where a traditional group-dinner of veggies and hot dogs in being prepared. Wavy sidles into the room that serves as his in-house temple — a small den festooned with religious icons (Jesus, Buddha, Mother Teresa, Mickey Mouse, Gumby) and, in this “altered estate,” he bows and prays to bless the day and “help make me the best Wavy Gravy that I can be.”
The inevitable slideshow of childhood photos is matched with a voice-over lifted from a shellac LP of a young Hugh Romney in his Beat Poet guise. Wavy’s career has careened through at least four stages of activism: Poet, Jester, Clown and, now (as many would argue), a Saintly Seva-Savior — a Visionary Vision Missionary. Wavy’s Early Years included boyhood walks with his Princeton neighbor, Albert Einstein, followed by a move to New York’s East Village where Romney shared a pad with a roommate named Bob Dylan and hung out with Lenny Bruce before going on the road to California.
The filmmakers mined a mother lode of independent documentaries and private troves to harvest a bounty of archival material (much of it never seen before). The result is a visual time-travelogue back to the days of Woodstock, the Hog Farm, the cross-country Wavy Gravy Trains of hippie vans and buses. There is the Hog Farm’s 1968 traveling road show to the Los Alamos nuclear proving grounds; the 1969 cross-country convoy across the US to host a Counter-inaugural in Washington; the Nobody for President Campaigns; “Breakfast for 400,000” at Woodstock; and some truly amazing footage of the Hog Farm’s 1971 Bangladesh relief convoy that traveled from London through 17 countries — some of which were practically unknown to the West.
In one marvelously bizarre encounter, the caravan camps in a forest in hopes of connecting with the region’s roaming Gypsies. Instead, they awake to find themselves surrounded by military tanks. But the sight of the paisley-painted convoy disarms the soldiers and soon the troops are exchanging their steel helmets with the cowboy-capped hippies and taking the unauthorized visitors for unofficial joy rides in their tanks.
Ultimately, the sight of a line of hippie buses crawling through the mountain passes of Afghanistan hits the eyes like some kind of peyote-inspired vision of an alternative universe. Those cluttering, sputtering brightly painted busses were the first time the people in these dirt-poor villages had ever laid eyes on Americans. And the clear evidence from the old 8-mm filmstrips is that the villagers — from giggling children to the smiling elders — loved what they saw.
It was during this expedition that Wavy’s friend-and-greatest-fan, Larry Brilliant, began to hatch the idea of bringing free medical services to these distant villages. It was a concept that would eventually blossom into the Seva Foundation. Sadly, the Hog Farm’s legacy of peace between people ended when US bombs began to tumble out of the Afghan skies in 2001. Today’s villagers no longer love Americans.
During his jester days, Wavy took his lumps from the truncheons of justice. Police beatings left him so battered that he had to undergo three spinal fusion surgeries to repair the damage. On two occasions, he spent months encased in a full-body cast — the “All Star Cast” and the “Cast of Thousands” — but he refused to remain idle. He continued to travel and insisted on being carried to protests on a stretcher, cast and all.
He first donned a clown’s face to help cheer young patients at the cancer ward at Oakland’s Children’s Hospital cancer ward. One day, when he showed up at a protest at People’s Park still wearing his clown get-up, he was surprised to discover that the police refused to pummel him. While a political Jester is born to pester, no cop wants to be seen clubbing a clown. In the film, Wavy is shown steering his van through Berkeley’s streets on a shopping trip and chuckling as he points to the blue handicapped placard dangling from his rear-view mirror. “Because the cops beat me up, I can now park anywhere I want, anytime, for the rest of my life!” It’s a typical burst of irrepressible positivity. When you are Wavy Gravy, even persecution has its perks.
The Hog Farm set down its roots in Berkeley in 1973 and Wavy’s Camp Winarainbow, a circus-arts retreat, was founded in 1974. The film devotes a generous slice of time to the young rope-walking, juggling, stilt-striding denizens of Camp Winarainbow, which comes across as a magical movie-within-a-movie.
But the film’s moral an emotional peak comes with Wavy and Jahanara’s 2001 trip to India to see first-hand the miraculous difference the Berkeley-based sight-restoring Seva Foundation has made in the lives of children and adults once blinded by cataracts. Seva’s work now extends to Nepal, Tibet, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Tanzania and Guatemala. Under the guidance of Larry Brilliant, Seva’s worldwide services have restored vision to the eyes of half a million people, 25,000 of them children.
There is enough adventure, humor, angst and triumph in the Wavy Gravy saga to flesh out a dozen ordinary biographies. In the course of patiently crafting this documentary over a span of ten years, director Michelle Esrick heard Wavy described as “a town crier, pied piper, jester, cultural phenomenon, holy clown, revolutionary and Saint” but, in the end, she came up with her own summation. “To be around Wavy,” Esrick says, “is to see the best part of ourselves, to feel hopeful, to feel inspired to be just a little more loving, forgiving and helpful in the world we live in — and to have fun doing it.”
Saint Misbehavin’ opens December 3 at the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley and the Red Vic in San Francisco. Wavy Gravy, filmmakers and other special guests will appear in person on Dec. 4th" at Berkeley's Landmark Shattuck..