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Nov. 29, 2010
By DENNIS HARVEY
A Ripple Effect Films presentation. Produced by Michelle Esrick, David Becker. Executive producers, D.A. Pennebaker, John Pritzker. Directed by Michelle Esrick.
With: Wavy Gravy, Jahanara Romney, Steven Ben Israel, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Odetta, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Denise Kaufman, Evan Engber, Calico, Dr. Larry Brilliant, Michael Lang, Tom Law, Jordan Romney, Dr. Patch Adams, Ram Dass, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt.
“Saint Misbehavin'” chronicles the life of one ’60s survivor still flying his freak flag high. Now, as then, a colorful footnote to the era, Wavy Gravy was present and accounted for at a number of the decade’s major moments; purportedly, Bob Dylan even used his typewriter to write the lyrics for “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” Opening Dec. 3 on single screens in San Francisco and Berkeley, then the following week at Gotham’s IFC Center, self-distribbed docu will primarily appeal to those who still remember (however hazily) the personalities and events on display, with tube sales possible after theatrical play.
Wavy Gravy’s Dream
1. Gravy still organizes several all-star benefits a year for charitable causes, including funding free cataract operations in third-world countries and Camp Winnarainbow, his own performing arts camp that helps disadvantaged children. In this clip, see Wavy at his benefits with members of the Grateful Dead, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez. “He’s able to bring people together above all others,” Raitt says. “He’s our Pied Piper.”
2. Before B.B. King dubbed him “Wavy Gravy” in 1969, he was Hugh Romney, once a poet on the Greenwich Village folk scene — he even shared a MacDougal Street loft with Bob Dylan. “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ was written on my typewriter in that room,” he says in the film. In this clip, Gravy discusses how he transformed from underground poet to Lenny Bruce-inspired standup act. “I decided to skip the poems and just talk about my weird day,” he says.
Subject was born in 1936 as Hugh Romney, keeping that humble given name as he began attracting notice as a poet and standup comic in Manhattan’s more bohemian quarters in the late ’50s. Dawning countercultural vibes drew him to sunny California in 1962, where he promptly hooked up with Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and started making performance less a profession than a full-time lifestyle, eventually changing his moniker to fit. Calling him “a consummate idealist,” his wife of 40 years, Jahanara Romney, says, “That persona you know as Wavy — that’s who he is.” He calls himself “not a classical clown (but) an intuitive clown,” one whose mission is described by pal Ram Dass as encouraging progressive change by “infusing politics with humor.”
As the hippie scene’s preeminent jester, Wavy helped defuse tension at anti-Vietnam War protests (not without incurring some police beatings); orchestrated “altruistic ministrations” to the hungry, tripping and muddy masses at Woodstock; ran satirical “Nobody for President” campaigns; put together myriad all-star music benefits for worthy causes (an ongoing pursuit); and so forth.
These days, he still lives in the same Berkeley commune he has for decades, working primarily on the kids’ circus-skills retreat Camp Winnarainbow and international health advocacy org Seva Foundation, both of which he co-founded. Musician Bonnie Raitt labels him her generation’s “Pied Piper.”
Notably, there are few interviewees from any other generation here, and those not kindly disposed toward clowns in general may find that a little of this one’s ever-cheerful, ever-punning New Age funny business goes a long way. But nostalgists will discover plenty to enjoy in director Michelle Esrick’s well-crafted package, which makes good use of period songs and archival footage.
Camera (color, HD), Daniel B. Gold; editor, Karen K.H. Sim; music, Emory Joseph; music supervisors, Jill Meyers, Joseph; sound (Dolby), Dan Gleich; sound designers, Dog Bark Sound, Margaret Crimmins, Greg Smith; re-recording mixer, Tony Volante. Reviewed on DVD, San Francisco, Nov. 26, 2010. Running time: 87 MIN.