An adoring portrait of a hippie icon

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Friday, February 18, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

Good vibrations are the main export of the hippie icon known as Wavy Gravy, the activist-clown who serves as the subject of the frankly adoring documentary “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie.”

There may be a dark side to the celebrated Mr. Gravy — his wife occasionally alludes to him being less than perfect — but this film decides not to delve into that. The average viewer probably won’t care, either.

Anyway, sending out a positive message has been the point of Wavy Gravy’s existence, which has included a remarkable number of oddball achievements, from founding a medical charity that aids people with vision problems in Nepal to having a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor named after him.

He began his career as a comedian/performance artist under the tutelage of Lenny Bruce, and hung around the Greenwich Village scene with Bob Dylan.

His antiwar activism in the 1960s led him to join Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and found a commune, the Hog Farm.

He also gave stage announcements at Woodstock. At this point, he was still known as Hugh Romney, his altogether ordinary birth name. A chance phrase delivered by B.B. King (at a different rock festival) encouraged Romney to officially change his name to Wavy Gravy.

Well, of course, right?

The idea of adopting a guise as a holy fool seems connected to Wavy Gravy’s logic about dressing up as a circus clown. He’d been beaten up a few times during antiwar demonstrations, so he figured he’d be less likely to get hit with a nightstick if he looked like Bozo. Which is probably a good rule of thumb.

“Saint Misbehavin’” takes a cheerful cruise through these highlights of hippie history. First-time director Michelle Esrick makes a few rookie mistakes; just because there happens to be a lot of original footage of a trip the Hog Farm folks took through Asia doesn’t mean we have to spend quite as much time on it as we do.

But it’s hard to argue with a movie whose subject seems so persistently optimistic. Padding around Berkeley with long gray hair and tie-dyed shirts, Wavy Gravy is either a walking cliche or a rare example of someone who actually lives out his idealism.

Life is just “Another cosmic custard pie,” he says in the movie. “I never know when it’s coming.”

Cosmic custard pie — have the Ben & Jerry’s people heard about this?

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