By Don Simpson | December 3, 2010
Director: Michelle Esrick
Featuring: Wavy Gravy, Larry Brilliant, Jackson Browne, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, The Grateful Dead, The Hog Farm, Odetta, Bonnie Raitt, Jahanara Romney, Buffy Sainte-Marie
No, Michelle Esrick’s documentary is not about Ben & Jerry’s nutty ice cream; but it is about the namesake of its now defunct flavor. Wavy Gravy began his life as Hugh Nanton Romney. A beatnik poet in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, Romney befriended and roomed with Bob Dylan and opened up for John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk. At the advice of Lenny Bruce, Romney headed west to California and was instantly immersed into the burgeoning hippie culture, becoming a Merry Prankster and Hog Farmer. Free from inhibitions and donning a court jester cap, Romney and his fellow “hog farmers” provided security (meaning: caring for and feeding 400,000 people) at Woodstock; he also functioned as the festival’s emcee. Soon thereafter, with a thirst for helping others, Romney and his friend Dr. Larry Brilliant (along with a caravan of helpers) travelled through the Middle East and Asia providing free medical care to those in need. Brilliant and Romney subsequently founded SEVA, an independent organization that continues to provide thousands of free eye operations annually worldwide.
Esrick spent ten years documenting Romney’s life, including interviewing a vast number of his contemporaries (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) and compiling archival footage. It is the archival footage that allows us to see the complete picture as Romney evolves from beat poet to court jester to clown; we see him as a Merry Prankster and living at the Hog Farm, we spend some time with him at Woodstock and during his journey across the Middle East and Asia. What a long strange trip it has been…
We first meet Romney at his Berkeley home, reciting his morning prayers to a near endless list of deities. Soon Romney is venturing out to buy enough hot dogs and ice cream — redeeming his lifelong supply of unlimited free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream — to feed a small army. Romney still practices the refrain of his song “Basic Human Needs”: “Wouldn’t it be neat if the people that you meet had shoes upon their feet and something to eat? And wouldn’t it be fine if all humankind had shelter?” Like his song, Romney has a supreme knack for reducing complicated ideas and politics to their most simplest essence. His belief in the power of the human spirit to be a force for positive change is unwavering. Romney adamantly believes that if people are provided the right environment, they can improve the world and have fun doing it.
Grace and kindness can come in some unusual disguises, and Romney is no exception. Those who do not know Romney would probably write him off as a homeless burned out hippie still tripping on residual acid as he wanders the streets of Berkeley in his clown costume. Those are the people who need to watch Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie; then they would learn that Romney is quite an extraordinary person who has selflessly devoted his life to helping others.