I lived in and around Berkeley, California for almost a decade, and sightings of Wavy Gravy’s Day-Glo decorated (and often poorly parked) minivan were a fairly commonplace thrill—even if, in the eyes of my university classmates who’d never heard sides four and five of the Woodstock soundtrack, he was just another anachronistic, curly-haired burn-out obnoxiously if doggedly preaching love to a stoic void. This irate confusion, which much of today’s youth holds toward the hippie credo, is understandable; the drug-hazed impotence of modern stereotypes, developed in part to dissuade post-Summer of Love generations from recreational narcotics, mostly just mock the notion of groovily compassionate discourse. And exacerbating the matter is the hippie philosophy’s pronounced apathy toward the hang-ups of others; its last few true practitioners seem uninterested in correcting these widespread misconceptions.
The biographical documentary Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie is a perfectly pitiful example of this generation gap-enforcing lethargy. The film’s subject is aggressively likable, a self-ordained court jester of leftistism who’s led several California-based communes and activist groups as both obstreperous social philosopher and humanitarian. But his life is rendered as a series of such shallowly described anecdotes that there’s no reason anyone under 40 should buy into the mushy, bumper sticker slogan values; what could have been a powerful piece of hippie apologia seems designed to rally baby boomers into a brief moment of cheap nostalgia.
It’s clear that Wavy Gravy relishes his rainbow-colored, epigram spouting, teaheaded persona, and that this has been crucial to his activism’s media success. (He explains toward the end of the film that he started dressing like a clown after discovering that demonstration-patrolling cops were hesitant to be caught pummeling a smiley-faced Bozo on camera.) But director Michelle Esrick never strays too far from the jolly, bowler-topped, children’s summer camp-counseling appearance Wavy adopted in the late ‘90s, to the point that his young adulthood as a New York-based performer named Hugh Romney, and his middle years as a gravelly voiced drug expert in the grassroots-y Hog Farm clan, seem like shadowy, fictional characters.
Esrick inexplicably skips the entirety of Romney’s childhood, beginning instead in the early ‘60s, at the Gaslight, where stragglers to the Beat Generation were unwittingly incubating the Peace and Love movement with polemical free verse poetry and altered states of consciousness. From there she cuts a path west to the LSD-distributing Merry Pranksters and the eventual home base of the San Francisco Bay Area, pausing occasionally to include offensively premorse endorsements from seldom-seen folk deities such as Odetta and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, as well as curiously listless commentary from Wavy himself. The hippie lifestyle has, truthfully, always seemed to me recklessly transcendental, but Wavy’s interpretation of this is imbued with universal practicality. (“Basic Human Needs,” his simple prayer for comfort to the poor, becomes the film’s theme.) So how can a humanitarian be so seemingly unwilling to humanize his own experiences?
What ultimately capsizes the admittedly affectionate portrait is how Wavy is shown to be a man of such few flaws while Esrick’s editorial errors keep chipping away at the movie’s credibility. Interviews with Wavy’s wife and son suggest wells of barely hidden pain as a result of their patriarch’s flightiness that are never offered proper catharsis; the latter speaks briefly and casually of his traumatic childhood within the Berkeley commune, and is never heard from in the film again. And the concept of “period music” notwithstanding, displaying images of the Woodstock festival atop Cat Stevens’s “On the Road to Find Out”—a song performed by a Brit and released over a year after the event at Yasgur’s Farm—portends the most damnable kind of audience pandering. An intriguing third act road trip through flood-torn Bangladesh provides an effective glimpse at Wavy’s irrepressible generosity, but by then it’s too late; perfunctory, bowdlerized, and intermittently condescending, Saint Misbehavin’ has all the biographical trenchancy of a fundraiser infomercial.