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Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie (A Movie Review)

Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie


Featuring Wavy Gravy, Jahanara Romney, Jordan Romney, Dr. Larry Brilliant, Steve Ben Israel, Michael Lang, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Odetta, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne.

Directed by Michelle Esrick.

Distributed by Ripple Effect Films. 87 minutes. Not Rated.

It takes a special man to make a name for himself simply for his selflessness. 

Wavy Gravy (born Hugh Romney) has become kind of a legend of the counterculture. He’s not exactly what you would call famous, but he has a certain infamy amongst those in the know – both as essentially the clown prince of the Woodstock nation and as a caring, tireless activist.

The man has lived a fascinating life, playing all sorts of roles – a beat poet in the early Greenwich Village scene, a cutting edge social comic, a member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, one of the first well-known hippies, founder of the Hog Farm Collective, security (and craft services) chief at Woodstock, unofficial ambassador, commune director, camp counselor, rebel, philanthropist, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor, fool, clown, master of ceremonies – the man has pretty much done it all.

Of course, when a man is willing to change his name legally to Wavy Gravy (a moniker suggested at a late 60s music festival by BB King), you realize the guy has to have an … umm, unique … way of viewing the world.

And Gravy is nothing if not unique. 

He became a legend in the hippie world because of his strong beliefs, his constant good nature and his prodigious drug taking. 

To a certain extent, Wavy Gravy is like a real-life Forrest Gump – not mentally challenged, of course, but a man who lived right on the outskirts of history – experiencing things that most of us could only dream of and befriending most of the defining minds of his generation. He is also like Gump because of a strong and single-minded determination to put others before himself.

Not all that many people still practice the communal ideals of hippiedom (as proof, just look at Jerry Brown, who has just again been voted Governor of California) – nor are they usually able to translate them to the modern world.

Wavy Gravy has grown to be a modest man living in a communal house in Berkeley, Ca. He still runs a camp that he has been running for decades and now has generations who vouch for the man’s generous spirit and good intentions. (One of the unintentionally funniest moments comes when a young camp-goer shows the place’s strict no judgment stance by pointing out that one of the kids is even a Republican.)

After all, the guy has made his strongest impression simply by determining to treat all people as deserving of respect. When he was a young rebel in the 60s, Gravy found himself getting beaten by the police. Instead of fighting back, he took a more cerebral tact. He started dressing as a clown, because he realized that he would not get beaten – or even arrested – dressed as a clown.

This discovery sort of colored the man’s world view – using humor and good nature as a tool to break down people’s defenses. Perhaps this approach worked most dramatically when Gravy was sort of shanghaied into handling security at the Woodstock Music Festival. He created the punnily named “Please Force” and made the backstage password “I don’t remember.” Instead of heavy-handed rules, he and his people believed in the general goodness of others and were rewarded by a three-day grouping of a half a million people in which there was no violence or crime. 

There is also a heartbreaking section of the film in which Gravy and the Hog Farmers rode buses through the Middle East and became goodwill ambassadors for the US who were beloved by the natives, simply for being American. Forty years of strife later, one can’t help but see all the missed opportunities and dashed hopes of the past several decades.

Over the end credits of the movie, a supergroup of Wavy Gravy’s friends, collaborators, and admirers (including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, Dr. John, Bob Weir and others) sing Wavy’s theme song “Basic Human Needs.” The song’s lyrics (“Wouldn’t it be neat if the people that you meet/would have shoes upon their feet and something to eat”) are much like the man who wrote them – a little corny, a little naïve, but full of a wonderful optimism and compassion for the less fortunate.

In a modern world where corporate bailouts have become par for the course and tea party every-man-for-themselves beliefs are increasingly taking hold, it’s kind of nice to spend an hour and a half with a man who spends pretty much every waking moment working for the greater good. No matter what you may think of Wavy Gravy’s lifestyle or beliefs, we could all learn from him.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2010 All rights reserved. Posted: November 14, 2010.


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