Film Review: Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie

A much better movie than its off-putting title would suggest, <i>Saint Misbehavin&#8217;: The Wavy Gravy Movie </i>will introduce many to a singularly altruistic individual.

Michelle Esrick’s documentary Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie is as informal as its bon-vivant subject, Wavy Gravy, a poet-philosopher, peace activist, prankster-clown, hog farmer and hippie icon (among other things). Fans of the man (a.k.a. Hugh Romney) will rush to this one. Others will be more cautious. If only the name of the movie were less annoying!

A kind of Zelig of the New York bohemian set, Romney seems to have been “at the revolution” and every other important event of the last five decades. In Esrick’s film, we learn that Romney (age 72 when filming took place) started out as a Greenwich Village comic-turned-poet-in-arms (with Bob Dylan) before joining the “beat” crowd and journeying to L.A. on LSD with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters (as described by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). Later, he protested against the Vietnam War, organized music concerts, emceed at Woodstock (no less), and visited Nepal to eradicate smallpox. In between, he ran a prized pig for President, then “Nobody” for President.

Esrick focuses primarily on Romney’s more recent endeavors, including his creation (with wife Jahanara) of a commune-cum-hog farm in Berkeley to help feed the poor and a current mission to teach circus and clown tricks to underprivileged youth.

Esrick tries to make artful collages out of some photos, but Saint Misbehavin’ is more engaging when it moves away from Romney’s own art (he just isn’t that good, whether singing or joking or designing) and takes its cheerful trip down memory lane with its infectious if abrasive guide. We see archival and home-movie footage and stills that remind us that there really was a time when the country wasn’t quite as cynical. The interviews with friends and colleagues are not terribly illuminating, but it is nice to see folks like Bonnie Raitt, Ram Dass, Jackson Browne, Buffy Sainte-Marie and other counterculture performers and thinkers.

Best of all, I suppose, is that Romney’s humanism is a constant through it all—a great example of how to remain unflappable in the face of attacks. (Running the commune leads the Romneys to be branded as communists.) It is hard to argue with someone doing (or trying to do) so many benevolent things for so many needy people. Whether or not that person deserves a fawning cinematic tribute is questionable, but Saint Misbehavin’ is a lively one—with a history lesson thrown in for good measure.