Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie

By Jeff Farr

Ripple Effect Films

A mediocre documentary about a great guy, “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie” frustrates as it misses its mark. Director Michelle Esrick has found an admirable subject in the iconic hippie clown Wavy Gravy, née Hugh Romney, but whenever she saddles up to some compelling material, her film bolts in the opposite direction.
An overlong opening credits sequence introduces us to Gravy in his current incarnation as a 74-year-old sweetheart going about his day: performing his idiosyncratic morning prayers, making his friendly rounds in Berkeley, California, and spending quality time with his devoted wife of forty-five years. This sequence, combined with another long closing credits sequence, gives the 87-minute film a padded feel.
In addition, a longish sequence detailing Gravy’s rather dramatic rise to fame as MC for the Woodstock Festival relies largely on the famous footage of the concert that most of us have seen countless times before. It is surprising that Esrick does not try to fast-forward through this more familiar part of the story to afford greater attention to lesser-known aspects of Gravy’s colorful career that preceded and followed the Woodstock moment.
For instance, more on his pre-hippie youth in Boston and New York would have added a lot. Gravy was an accomplished beat poet and standup comic before gravitating toward his Woodstock-era role of protest jester and later his true calling of clown-on-a-mission.
His relationship with mentor Lenny Bruce is passed over much too quickly, as is his early friendship with the young Bob Dylan, both of them Village rising stars in the very infancy of the 1960s.
Esrick does a better job at detailing the origins of the Hog Farm, the nomadic hippie commune that Gravy formed prior to Woodstock and which continues in some form to this day. In its heyday, the group traveled the country and eventually the world in hand-painted buses while attempting to loosen America up with antics that they believed would spread love and peace.
When Esrick includes a modern-day reunion of the generation who grew up in the community under Gravy’s parentage, she again falters. The opportunity to offer a more nuanced portrait of communal life is missed, as a few truncated interviews with the grownup kids paint a mostly rosy picture of what—at least from the archival footage—looks to have been a lifestyle with many rough edges.
A major question would be how the rampant substance abuse the children were exposed to may have affected their adult lives. According to Esrick’s film, all of those youngsters came out of that unstable environment not only unscathed but with an arsenal of life lessons that today help them successfully negotiate their way through their post-commune lives.
One of the most telling, albeit brief, interviews in “Saint Misbehavin’” is with Gravy’s son—to whom his parents gave the tragic but inspired moniker Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop, which he changed to the simpler Jordan as soon as he legally could. His mother pointedly notes that her grown son’s “only requirement for the place that he would live would be that it didn’t share a wall with anybody else’s house.” So much for the commune!
Wouldn’t this be a stronger film if it showed us more of the downside to the hippie dream? The Hog Farm survivors interviewed in “Saint Misbehavin’” are few and far between—leading us naturally to wonder how long a trail of “acid casualties” Gravy’s traveling circus may have left behind.
A comment toward the end of the film from Mrs. Gravy encapsulates what is absent but most needed in this documentary: “Wavy is very human, and he has lots of faults, and he makes lots of mistakes.” Never getting to see any of those faults or mistakes does not help us to better understand Gravy as a human being. All we get is the “saint” part of the equation, which becomes a bit tiresome and is ultimately a disservice to the man’s praiseworthy service.
In the second half of the film, Esrick details how Gravy eventually found wonderful outlets for his altruist spirit: CampWinnarainbow and the Seva Foundation. While Winnarainbow is a performing arts camp, mostly for kids, run by Gravy and his wife north of San Francisco, Seva is a health organization founded by Gravy, Ram Dass, and Dr. Larry Brilliant that is now known internationally for its noble efforts to restore eyesight to millions of blind people in Asia, India, and Africa.
The film’s best sequence is an eerie montage of the Hog Farm’s epic journey in 1971—the trip that essentially gave birth to Seva—all the way from London through various countries, including Afghanistan, to the future hippie Mecca of Kathmandu. There is a strong bittersweet quality to this sequence: the current impossibility of any such band of idealistic American hippies making such a trek and receiving the same warm welcome we see here, especially in Afghanistan, sinks home for us.
Did the grand experiment work? Esrick does not get anywhere near the big question that her film raises, but at its best her portrait of Gravy makes the argument that the counterculture movement is still standing, maybe even moving forward. We’ve got to keep fighting the good fight, like Wavy Gravy.
Wavy Gravy
Dr. Larry Brilliant
Jackson Browne
Ram Dass
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
The Grateful Dead
Steve Ben Israel
Michael Lang
Bonnie Raitt
Buffy Saint-Marie
A Ripple Effect Films release.
Directed by Michelle Esrick.
Produced by Michelle Esrick, David Becker.
Executive Producers, D A Pennebaker and John Pritzker.
Director of Photography, Daniel B. Gold.
Editor, Karen K. H. Sim.
Score by Emory Joseph.
Running time: 87 minutes.