"Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie." Reviews

Apr 3, 2009

The 12th Full Frame Documentary Film Festival got under way Thursday and continues this week. Here are some reviews of featured films.

"Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie."

"Help me be the best Wavy Gravy I can muster." So begins the documentary about the beat poet turned Merry Prankster, Hog Farm commune member, peace activist, clown, husband, father and flavor of Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

"Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie" shows viewers that the hippie clown is more than just, well, a hippie clown. He is serious about being happy and helping to make others so, too. The film opens with Wavy Gravy -- real name Hugh Romney -- praying to anyone and everyone spiritual and secular as he starts his day. The camera follows him as he picks up some of his lifetime supply of Ben and Jerry's (a perk of having an ice cream named after him) and hot dogs for a dinner to feed 40 folks on his Hog Farm commune. Yep, the same commune he and wife Jahanara Romney have been part of for decades. The same commune that ran a free kitchen at Woodstock.

Wavy Gravy was the one on the microphone telling people on acid not to freak out, and the one helping them chill out in a tent. His humanitarian work extended beyond the counterculture. In 1978, Wavy Gravy and others started the nonprofit Seva Foundation, which funds international health programs for the poor. The first fundraising concert for cataract surgeries for blind people in India was performed by the Grateful Dead. Wavy Gravy also runs a peacenik children's clown camp, Camp Winnarainbow. The Romneys' own son was named Howdy Dogood, though he changed his name to Jordan when he was 13.

The film touches on other aspects of Wavy Gravy's life, like his early days as a beatnik poet in Greenwich Village with Bob Dylan, and as a Merry Prankster with Ken Kesey's cross country LSD tour chronicled in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" by Tom Wolfe. But most of the film combines old footage with current interviews of friends of Wavy Gravy today at age 72. His wife said when they married, he told her to expect a life that wasn't boring. He also said he didn't expect to live past 40. Jahanara Romney said that he is human, with faults and makes mistakes, but is also heroic. "He's my teacher and I'm his protector," she said.

She also said that Wavy Gravy is not a character that he puts on for the public. It is who he is. That comes across for the audience, too, and Wavy Gravy's positive vibes are hard to avoid.


Hippie legend Wavy Gravy documents his own journey

Christine T. Nguyen/ The Herald-Sun
Michelle Esrick, director of “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie,” and the documentary’s subject, hippie icon Wavy Gravy, appear at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on Friday.
Apr 4, 2009

DURHAM -- It is hard to be grumpy around someone with the good vibes of Wavy Gravy, the hippie clown, 1960s counterculture figure and namesake of a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor.

He is spreading peace and laughter in Durham this weekend at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival downtown. The 72-year-old Berkeley, Calif., resident who describes himself as a "Santa Claus to Deadheads" is the subject of the documentary "Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie," which screened at the festival Friday afternoon in the Carolina Theatre. Wavy Gravy -- real name Hugh Romney -- sat down earlier in the day with The Herald-Sun to talk about his life, the film and his work making the world a better place.

Gravy arrived at Full Frame clad in rainbow tie-dyed pants, a black shirt with a tie-dyed rainbow peace sign on it, hat, red clown nose and a fish on a leash named Saul Bass. Director Michelle Esrick said that it would take 10 films to chronicle Gravy's life, so she focused on his message and things that people don't know about him.

"Saint Misbehavin'" shows a side of Gravy that isn't as well known as his association with peace activism, Grateful Deadheads and the Hog Farm commune. Esrick spent a decade on the film that includes archival footage from the '60s.

Gravy started out as a New York beatnik poet with Bob Dylan. After moving to California, he participated in the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, became a staple at Grateful Dead shows and formed the Hog Farm collective, which ran the free kitchen and freak out tent at Woodstock. Later, Gravy helped start the international non- profit Seva Foundation, which funds cataract surgery for the poor. His life today is spent raising funds for Seva and running Camp Winnarainbow for kids. And he's still part of the Hog Farm and married to Jahanara Romney, his wife of more than 40 years.

Gravy said he's weird everywhere, all the time. Asked how he keeps so positive, he started singing, "Accentuate the positive ... ."

"Might as well take it half full than half empty, that's all," he explained. "I do walk to the edge and look over. I gazed into the abyss and decided it's not the best way to spend my time."

"Saint Misbehavin'" also showcases a song Gravy wrote, "Basic Human Needs," which he starts singing when asked about it. Recorded by musicians including Steve Earle, Bonnie Raitt and Bob Weir, Gravy hopes the song will help save the Seva Foundation, whose funding is down in the current economy.

The Wavy Gravy ice cream flavor was discontinued in 2003 after Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's, Gravy said, because using hazelnuts in ice cream wasn't cost effective. So he's talking to the company about bringing him back as a new flavor -- a rainbow sorbet -- to raise money for Seva and Camp Winnarainbow.

Next up for Gravy is more film festivals and a dinner in his honor by Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead to raise money for Seva and Camp Winnarainbow. Gravy hopes the documentary will raise awareness of both.

© 2009 by The Durham Herald Company. All rights reserved.


REVIEW: “St. Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie” tells story of basic human needs <http://wp.modernfilmzine.com/2009/04/05/review-st-misbehavin-the-wavy-gravy-movie-tells-story-of-basic-human-needs/>
Sunday, April 5th, 2009
EDITOR’S NOTE: A more in depth interview with Wavy Gravy and director Michelle Esrick will soon follow this review.

By Michael Knox, mknox@modernfilmzine.com

When Hugh Romney joined up with Ken Kesey and the rest of the Merry Pranksters who formed the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test team, Romney knew it was an adventure he had to go on.

“It was a chance to sign up on a space ship,” Romney said during one sequence of a documentary based on his adventures, “St. Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie.” <http://www.rippleeffectfilms.com/wavyweb2.html>

Romney, who has been known as the clown, Wavy Gravy, ever since blues star B.B. King coined the name, has lived a life that’s included being a jester with the Merry Pranksters, building a friendship with the Grateful Dead and traveling the world in an effort to help cure blindness in poor countries.

The film played out to a crowded audience during the Full Frame Film Festival <http://www.fullframefest.org> in Durham, N.C. Prior to the movie a crowd of people lined up outside, twisting around the building.

“Good lord, how long does this line go on,?” one person blurted out before finding the end of the line to see the movie. No surprise though, because as one person said, this is a movie that plays to the counterculture crowd and the Dead Heads.

But the movie is more than that. It gives hope for a better bit of humanity, with footage of people pulling together to take care of their extended family, and more importantly try to take care of complete strangers. The movie starts talking about that with a poem by Wavy Gravy about basic human needs and trying to feed an help everyone else.

“Throughout the making of this film, Wavy has been described to me as a town crier, pied piper, jester, cultural phenomenon, holy clown, living treasure, revolutionary, and Saint,” director Michelle Esrick stated on her Web site. “All I know is, to be around Wavy is to see the best part of ourselves, to feel hopeful, to feel inspired to be just a little more loving, forgiving and helpful in the world we live in, and to have fun doing it. It is my honor to introduce the real Wavy Gravy to the world. Personally, I think we need the ‘fool’ now more than ever!”

Weaving humor with helping out the world, the documentary starts off with Gravy going out to get food for the Hog Farm, a commune run by Gravy. Wavy Gravy has become such a character in the community that his name was used for a brand of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, allowing him to get as much Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, whenever he wants. During the first bit of the movie he stops off at a Ben & Jerry’s long enough to pick up ice cream for the commune.

“He just bought $50 worth of ice cream for free,” the cashier says with a laugh as Gravy walks out, adding, “He does that a lot.”

The footage cuts between Gravy’s life on the Hog Farm and him praying to a series of individuals and religions that range from civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. to the comedian Lenny Bruce.

Before long the movie begins to go into the broad strokes of Gravy’s life. It’s not entirely focused on Gravy’s life, so much as uses his life as a springboard to talk about how Gravy and his followers help out people across the world.

Gravy, still known as Romney, began his career as a poet at a jazz club where he got to know people such as Bob Dylan. Gravy admitted to the fun he and others would have before going on stage.

“Where we would get delightfully altered and creative,” Gravy said.

The club, The Gas Light, was where Gravy also began to start with comedy, after one person kept hearing Gravy’s stories about his day, and convincing him to talk about his life.

The formula had an almost Lenny Bruce edge to it and eventually lead him to opening up for the likes of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. He even met up with a business manager until he realized how hardcore the man was. There were barracuda in the fish tanks of the lobby, which deterred Gravy from really wanting to work with the manager, he said during the film.

From there the movie talks about how Gravy connected with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and how the busload of people came to his cabin. With 45 people in a one bedroom cabin, the landlord was irritated and tossed Gravy out. It was a bit of serendipity that allowed Gravy to go to a hog farm and live, as long as his people took care of the farm. The bit of luck lead to the creation of the Hog Farm commune.

It didn’t take long for the commune to go on the road to spread their declaration of peace and love. The Hog Farm mentality eventually grew to be a common headline in the newspapers to the point that the commune crew set up shop at Woodstock. They were there after a huge rainstorm that could have made people have a meltdown. But Gravy and his crew helped out, serving food and such.

“What we have … is breakfast in bed for 400,000 people,” Gravy said in some historical footage used in the documentary.

The movie also shows the impact of Gravy’s life on his family, including his son, now known as Jordan Romney. He was originally known as Howdy Do-Good Gravy, until he found out that he could legally change his name when he turned 13 years old.

“I spent my 13th birthday in court,” Jordan Romney said in the film.

He also talked about how he lived on the commune and how that affected him.

“I had 30 dads,” he said. “There was no one person responsible for shaping me into who I am today.”

The film covers a wide area of Gravy’s life including his work with Woodstock and the Merry Pranksters, to his Camp Winnarainbow, where children can come learn to juggle, be a clown, walk a tightrope and just learn to be themselves. It’s the scenes of Gravy at the camp that you also see his particular brand of humor.

Dressed as en elephant during one sequence Gravy says, “I’m Smartbo, Dumbo’s intelligent brother.”

One child at the camp talked about how accepting everybody was everyone and how freeing that was to just be yourself and be able to fit in.

“There’s even a kid in a teepee who’s a Republican,” the child said during the documentary. The line drew huge laughs from the crowd who filled the auditorium during the Full Frame screening.

All in all the movie has a great vibe and lets people know about Gravy’s dreams of spreading peace and love, including his work with the organization Seva. Seva-supported eye care programs in Asia and Africa have helped nearly three million blind people to see again by providing affordable cataract surgeries, according to the organization’s Web site.

The film also covers Gravy’s protests against the Vietnam War and how he went from wearing a court jester’s outfit to dressing up as a clown.

When dressed as a clown, cops didn’t want to hit Gravy because of the bad image it gave police, Gravy said. “And they didn’t want to be caught clubbing Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny,” Gravy said.

Gravy talked about how the clown outfit was not just a defense, but a tool to talk to people and help spread his philosophies.

“When you laugh at something your defenses go down,” he said.

One of Gravy’s friends, country star Bonnie Raitt, talked about Gravy’s ability to help, but just being connected to humanity.

“He’s able to bring people together,” she said. “He’s our pied piper.”

The movie travels from the hills of California to the Himalayan Mountains to detail Gravy’s adventures and features Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Maria Muldaur, Steve Earle, Dr. John, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Odetta, Buffy Sainte Marie, Michael Franti, his wife Jahanara Romney, Dr. Larry Brilliant, Patch Adams, Lisa Law, Denise Kaufman, Tom Law, and Steven Ben Israel.

Beginning with Woodstock ‘99, director Michelle Esrick has spent ten years documenting the life of Wavy Gravy, according to the film’s Web site. “Saint Misbehavin’” journeys from the hills of California to the Himalayan Mountains to reveal the life of this one of a kind servant to humanity.

The film blends Wavy’s own words with magical stories from an extraordinary array of fellow travelers both cultural and counter-cultural, revealing the man behind the clown’s grin and the fool’s clothing, the Web site states.

In “Saint Misbehavin’” Wavy is revealed more than the tie-dyed entertainer and ice-cream flavor namesake that often defines him in the popular imagination.

Wavy’s life is his message, serving as deeply needed inspiration that we can change the world and have fun doing it, the Web site states. Satirist Paul Krasner describes Wavy as “The illegitimate son of Harpo Marx and Mother Theresa, conceived one starry night on a spiritual whoopie cushion,” to which Wavy has replied, “Some people tell me I’m a saint, I tell them I’m Saint Misbehavin’.”


Wavy Gravy in ‘Saint Misbehavin’: Mostly We’re Just Trying to Be Groovy

Full Frame Day 2

There’s a man going round with a red nose making people smile; documentary festivals can be very serious affairs - from 10.30 in the morning it’s usually the case that we’re plunged into questions of genocide, disease, loss and sorrow. So it was more than a relief when I found Wavy Gravy in the room today.

I missed the sixties by 5 years, and am never sure if the mythology around the decade is the pharmacological residue of the various substances ingested by its protagonists, or the over-statement of a movement that failed by misty-eyed retired peace warriors.

They didn’t stop the war; they didn’t permeate the culture in any positive lasting way; they didn’t change anything, did they?

Hold on, I’m getting a little bit too ‘film critic burned out on not realising that being here is a privilege’. Forgive me. Please. That’s what Wavy would do.

A better question: What’s the problem with fun? What’s the problem with trying to bring more love into the world? What’s the problem with making people happy just by being in the same room?

‘Saint Misbehavin’ , the film about the former Hugh Romney is dedicated to revealing that this clown is warm on the inside, I think; burdened for his poor and suffering brothers and sisters, and alive to the possibility that smiling can make almost anything better.

‘Saint Misbehavin’ is about people who were prepared to live beyond the narrow circle of self. Living in community, sharing possessions, helping people look up from the difficulties of the everyday and enjoy it while it lasts, with a detour along the way to help save the eyesight of 2 million people (and counting) in the developing world. The film challenges the notion that the sixties were mostly about self-indulgence. Of course they were nothing but indulgence for some; but we may together suspect they have their reward.

A great Scottish architect once told me that the purpose of architecture is ‘to help human beings live better’. I don’t know if I’m what passes for a serious film critic or not; and I’m not even sure that I want to be. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. So I’m not certain if what I’m about to say is an academically rigorous theory of film, but watching this movie left me thinking that at least part of the purpose of cinema might be the same as designing buildings: to create a space in which people can find more of their better selves; to become the best of what is already within them. ‘Saint Misbehavin’ isn’t necessarily the most aesthetically accomplished documentary I’ve ever seen, but when you’ve got this much humanity on screen it does everything I needed it to do. (Have no fear, dear listeners, I haven’t lost it - that phrase can apply equally to ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Fanny and Alexander’, ‘Solaris’, ‘Magnolia’, and any number of other accepted parts of the canon. I just happen to have had an uplifting experience with a delightful documentary today, that turned out to be far more substantial than ‘delightful’ implies.)

‘Saint Misbehavin’ becomes more than one man’s life story; it’s indicative of what living communally can be, and how human security depends on generosity, not fear. It’s a modest work of art that wants to gently irritate accepted norms of human behaviour and respectability. It loves all people. It offers what its protagonist has dedicated his life to. It wants to suggest that it is possible to harness the energy that all human beings have toward peace.


Wavy Gravy: Relevant in the 60s and Today

I admit upfront that I am a huge Wavy Gravy fan. After today, I’m tempted to become a Wavy Gravy groupie. Michelle Esrick directed “Saint Misbehavin’,” the film that tells part of the Wavy Gravy Story. (DA Pennebaker was the executive producer on the film.) Wavy and Michelle visited us today in the Full Frame Press Lounge (where my firm is doing pro bono work) and I had the opportunity to film them while they were being interviewed by Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan of the Herald-Sun. After the interview I got to hang out with Wavy and Michelle, and listen to more of Wavy’s stories. He was extremely gracious and generous with his time. For me, meeting Wavy Gravy was one of the true highlights of the 2009 Full Frame Festival <http://www.fullframefest.org> ! This guy has more positive energy than anyone I’ve ever met. As far as I’m concerned, Wavy Gravy is as relevant today as he was in the 60’s, in large part because he has chosen to remain relevant through his good works. (Watch the video clip below!)

Here’s an excerpt from Mr. Gravy’s bio on his website <http://www.wavygravy.net> :

“Wavy Gravy, Hugh Romney, who is fast approaching official geezerhood, is more active and more effective in the world then he was decades ago. Back then when still known as Hugh Romney he stood on the stage of the original Woodstock concert and announced….” What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000!” He was at Woodstock as a member of an entertainment/activist commune known as the Hog Farm. Today, the Hog Farm still exists, collectively owning and operating the 700-acre Black Oak Ranch and hosting the annual Pig-Nic. And Wavy lives a third of the year in a Berkeley Hog Farm urban outpost, a big communal house he refers to as “hippie Hyannisport” But Mr. Gravy (as he’s known to readers of the New York Times) has expanded his activities over the past two-and-a-half decades to include codirectorship (with his wife, Jahanara) of Camp Winnarainbow, a performing arts program for children which takes over the Hog Farm for 10 weeks every summer, and the organization of all-star rock concerts to raise money for a variety of environmental, progressive, political, and charitable causes, most notably Seva, a foundation he cofounded in 1978, initially to combat preventable and curable blindness in the Third World.”


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Yu's film was followed by my favorite film of the festival so far, "Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie." It turns out that Wavy Gravy is more than just a popular Ben-and-Jerry's ice cream flavor--it's the name adopted by Hugh Romney, an iconic hippie prankster who has lived a particularly inspiring brand of idealism for half a century. He began as a poet in Greenwich Village, friend to Bob Dylan, Ken Kesey, and Tiny Tim, among others. From there he adopted a more comic persona, performing a kind of stand-up routine that provoked people to ask questions and care more deeply. A leader in what came to be the hippie movement, he eventually traveled across America with his freewheeling commune known as "The Hog Farm," and often wore a jester costume, embracing the role of the fool in service of his ideals. He and his remarkable wife of some 40 years, Jahanara, led a sort of security detail at Woodstock that included a kind of reenactment of the biblical feeding of the 5,000, and eventually took a remarkable trip across Europe and through Asia (including through countries like Afghanistan where a westerner would be unable to travel in the same way now), spreading an ethic of warmth and generosity wherever they went. One can't help but compare the footage of that trip with how such a trip might look now; as Wavy Gravy puts it, "War is such a complicated way of getting to know people."

I am telling you, the story may sound goofy from the description, but it is absolutely inspiring stuff, revealing that, for some at least, the hippie movement consisted of a lot more than drugs and free love, but rather of a brand of devotion that some people have actually lived out in the years since. Wavy Gravy, who eventually adopted a clown persona partly because he frequently entertains children (and adults) but also because dressing as a clown (or as Santa or the Easter Bunny) seemed to finally deter police beatings that gravely exacerbated his serious long-standing back problems), is the perfect modern-day example of a sacred fool. As his best friend of many years describes it, when you meet a clown who thinks more deeply than you do and has read more than you have, it throws you, and Wavy Gravy uses the spaces his playful humor opens up to heal and inspire. Jahanara, too (whom the director calls "the ground beneath the clown") is incredibly inspiring; one has the sense of a marriage of equals that truly works, which makes it especially remarkable (and not at all icky) when she professes simply, "He's my teacher and I'm his protector." (I was thrilled to actually get to see them at the Q&A afterwards.) This film really deserves to be seen, so I'll keep you informed of release dates, which I hope will be forthcoming. (9)