“Saints,” George Orwell wrote of Gandhi, “should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” and the same might be said of Wavy Gravy, the self-proclaimed “Saint Misbehavin’.” A Berkeley-based jester who has been clowning for the counterculture for nearly half a century and looks like he’s carved out of lumpy mashed potatoes, the former Hugh Romney would seem a perfect subject for a documentary. Michelle Esrick’s film draws heavily on the image bank to take the young Romney from Village poetry sessions circa 1959 through his Zelig-like manifestations with Dylan, the Merry Pranksters, the Hog Farm, and Woodstock, before his final ascension into clown white. The highlight of her archival trawl is a 1970 bus ride from Germany to Nepal; found footage of the hippies interacting with Afghan tribes is delightful. The rest of the film is devoted to Gravy’s present-day charitable work, including his summer circus for children, Camp Winnarainbow. The subject of this movie, however, remains frustratingly elusive. Esrick skips over Romney’s childhood completely, and his Army service and pretty much everything else before his early 20s. What made the man a poet to begin with is thus missing, as is what makes him tick today. Perhaps the fly-on-the-wall approach of Esrick’s mentor (and this film’s executive producer) D.A. Pennebaker would have been more revealing. Instead, we get just a mystery man in white.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 8, 2010