A long, long time ago one of our primordial ancestors first hit a hollow log or blew through a reed and found the sound pleasing. From this happy accident music came into the world and now we have Bach, Miles Davis and the Grateful Dead. More recently, a storyteller’s voice showed signs of strain and little squiggles were put on papyrus and writing began to record human thought and emotion, giving us The Dead Sea Scrolls, Shakespeare and Jack Kerouac. Skip ahead a few thousand years to the 19th century and witness its obsession with capturing light and shadow on paper and gel, and then watch Michelle Esrick’s film, Saint Misbehavin’ and by the time it’s finished, you might just think that it was the reason why movies were invented in the first place.
After all, Saint Misbehavin’ has got all of the elements of a great epic. The hero of the story does go through a great transformation, endures unbelievable trials and tribulations, has visionary experiences and ends up with an ice cream flavor named after him. Not quite The Iliad or The Odyssey, to be sure, but whatever Wavy Gravy’s story lacks in the scary monster and plague of locusts department, it more than makes up for in fun and rollicking good times (with a few tears thrown in for good measure).
The hero of Esrick’s epic – Hugh Romney – begins life rather inauspiciously before enrolling in the military at a young age, but Saint Misbehavin’ is not a war story – at least not in the traditional sense. Romney spent his time in the army painting murals, not making the world safe for American capitalism. It’s only after leaving the military and moving to New York that the story gets interesting. For Romney arrived in Greenwich Village – the epicenter of the fading beat and burgeoning folk scene – just as the sixties were beginning to explode all around North America. Romney fit right in and shortly he was reading poetry, doing stand up and organizing hootenannys at The Gaslight coffee house where artists like Bob Dylan and Buffy St. Marie got their starts. Romney and Dylan briefly lived together before they began to follow their individual trajectories and create their own mythologies.
While Dylan’s story is very well known, Wavy Gravy arguably had an equal role in forming attitudes and offering alternatives to the generation growing up at the time. Now, thanks to Michelle Esrick, his story has finally been properly told.
Esrick spent ten years following Wavy Gravy with a camera and researching his life. In the early part of the film, she chronicles his commitment to the anti-war movement that grew in response to America’s involvement in Vietnam. Romney paid a terrible personal cost for being on the front lines as repeated beatings from the police have left him with debilitating back injuries that still cause him great pain over forty years later. On a happier note, during this time Romney and his partner Jahanara began experimenting with alternate living situations and the Hog Farm commune that they co-founded in the mid-sixties is still going strong today.
Romney is perhaps best known as one of the MCs at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. When thousands of people arrived without proper food or shelter, Romney and his fellow Hog Farmers flew into action, collected food and organized a kitchen to feed the masses. They also set up a recovery area for people suffering from bad acid trips establishing a compassionate model that has served as a blueprint for festivals and Grateful Dead concerts for more than four decades.
After Woodstock, Romney and his buddies spent the next seven years making their way around the world by bus. During her research for the movie, Esrick found a virtual holy grail of forgotten footage from the rag tag group’s journey to the east in a storage locker where it had resided for more than thirty years. The twenty minutes of vintage film stock from this trip that ended up in Saint Misbehavin’ is priceless and reason enough to watch the DVD.
Since the late 1970’s Wavy Gravy (watch the film to see how he got his name) has divided his time between running Camp Winnarainbow – a spectacular kids’ camp operated on rural land owned by the Hog Farm – and as a spokesperson for SEVA. SEVA is a service society founded by hippies and compassionate freaks that focuses on curing operable blindness in the third world. Since its inception SEVA doctors have cured over 500,000 people – including 25,000 children – of blindness through simple cataract operations.
Perhaps, the most inspiring thing that Esrick communicates about Wavy in her film is his humility and sense of humour. There is nothing preachy or sanctimonious about his approach to activism. By flaunting his flaws, Wavy constantly shows that he’s just like you and me, but unlike most of us, he walks his talk and gets off his ass if something is bothering him. He’s inspiring without making us feel bad about ourselves. His comedy isn’t of the obvious slapstick variety that one often expects from a clown. He’s often corny and trite on the surface, but open yourself up and you’ll experience the kind of deep soul laugh that it truly healing. As you’d expect, there are no putdowns in Wavy Gravy’s humour.
Since it was released in 2009, Saint Misbehavin’ has received almost universally positive reviews. This may seem baffling at first. After all, there are no big stars, no special effects and no sex in the film. It’s not the type of over the top message movie (Blood Diamond, Gandhi) that Hollywood producers love. Instead, it is a low-key celebration of human potential and a joyful exploration of the spirit that resides in all of us and is best exemplified by the life and works of Wavy Gravy. Warmth, love, and an utter lack of cynicism make Saint Misbehavin’ a movie like no other.
Saint Misbehavin’ has just been released on DVD. In addition to the theatrical release, the DVD features almost an hour of crucial extra footage. To paraphrase Wavy, you owe it to yourself to watch ‘something good for a change.’ You’ll be glad you did.