Monday, December 06, 2010

Stuck in the Sixties: Saint Misbehavin’

When Ben & Jerry’s names a flavor after you, it means free ice cream for life. That should be something for Sarah Palin to look forward to when they finally get around to releasing Mama Grizzly’s Alaskan Halibut Crunch. Wavy Gravy can tell her all about it. He certainly knows how to exploit an entitlement, as we see in Michelle Esrick’s Saint Misbehavin’: the Wavy Gravy Movie (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at the IFC Center.

Before he was a New Left clown, Wavy Gravy was the beat poet Hugh Romney. Like many of his contemporaries, Romney was very definitely a part of the jazz and coffeehouse scene. He opened for John Coltrane, formed a trio with Moondog (the great madman of experimental music), and recorded spoken word albums for Pacific Jazz’s Dick Bock. Unfortunately, these intriguing associations are glossed over in Esrick’s rush to get to the standard issue hippie years.

The 1960’s are now five decades removed, yet as we listen to Romney/Gravy, it is clear he has not paused to take stock of world developments since that time. He still uses the term “genocide” to describe America’s participation in the Viet Nam War, evidently oblivious of the mass murders and exodus of “boat people” that followed the U.S. withdrawal. This hermetically sealed world view is a fundamental problem with the film. Frankly, it is aptly titled hagiography, featuring one gushing talking head tribute after another, with absolutely no patriotic dissent allowed.

In truth, a bit of controversy would help Misbehavin' immensely. Simply watching Romney/Gravy amble through Berkley as his friends tell us what a great guy he is gets a bit dull. Only when his son Jordan Romney explains the challenges of growing up with his given name, “Howdy Do Good Tomahawk Truckstop Gravy,” does the film approach the mildest hint of criticism. (For obvious reasons, the younger Romney changed it as soon as he was legally able.)

The trick of a political documentary like Misbehavin’ is to convince the audience of the importance of their subjects, even if they do not share their world view. Esrick never accomplishes that (which is one reason spending more time with the Beat years might have been profitable). Despite the involvement of noted documentarian D.A. Pennebaker as executive producer, Misbehavin’ is strictly for the faithful—those still nostalgic for a 1960’s that never were. Those looking for penetrating cinema should look elsewhere when it opens this Wednesday (12/8) in New York at the IFC Center.