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Watch the beginning of "Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie," and it's easy to expect the hippie icon to step out of character at any moment. Nobody could possibly be this upbeat all of the time - equally enthusiastic whether he's serving breakfast in bed to 400,000 at Woodstock or buying some hot dogs in Berkeley.
Michelle Esrick's documentary about the former Hugh Romney captures the charming, compassionate and occasionally exhausting sides of the man, from his early adult years as a New York poet to his daily routine as the head of a 40-year-old commune in Berkeley. The straightforward approach doesn't always match the subject matter, but there's plenty of interesting material - especially for younger viewers who know more about the counterculture icon's Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor than his artistic contributions and philanthropic work. Esrick spent 10 years on the film, and the result is a comprehensive portrait.
It begins with the poet at home, asking a long list of gods to "bless this day as it transpires, and let me be the best Wavy Gravy I can muster." The film is strongest when he's closer to home, where Gravy is comfortable interacting with members of his commune, and still in love with his wife of more than four decades.
Gravy and his family aren't the least bit self-conscious, and the fun is in the details. Esrick clearly likes her subject, but also shows the $50 receipt from Ben & Jerry's, where the icon regularly cashes in the lifetime supply of free ice cream that comes with his position. Later, she interviews his son, who explains why as a teen he changed his name from Howdy Dogood to the less flower power-y Jordan.
Visits to Gravy's kids camp and accounts of his overseas travels are also enjoyable. Children on camera remark that all kinds of kids are welcome in the clown's Camp Winna-Rainbow tepees - even a Republican!
The film is less successful during an occasionally plodding middle section, a chronological history which often feels like a film version of his Wikipedia entry. The commune's beginnings are interesting, but the facts are already widely known. It's much more interesting to see how the same commune functions four decades down the road.
"Saint Misbehavin' " is a tribute to Wavy Gravy, but Esrick makes a convincing point that he's more than deserving of the attention. "It's nice to have fun, so we worked at it," he says in the middle of the film. It's a lesson many viewers will take to heart.— Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle
Wed April 13, 2011, 7:00 & 9:00, Muenzinger Auditorium
USA, 2009, Color, 87 min., DP, 1.85:1, Not Rated • official site