As characters go, it’s hard to find anyone who has had both the Zelig-like ubiquity and, at the same time, the high profile of Hugh Romney, aka Wavy Gravy.
You get a true sense of just how wide a net he’s cast over the years in “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie,” a new documentary by Michelle Esrick. Though only a middling piece of filmmaking, its subject is so personable, with both an infectious personality and a razor-sharp mind, that it’s hard not to get caught up in his story.
Wavy, as his friends call him, is now 74 but still the same force-of-nature, eager to do good and evoke smiles and laughter. As the film shows, he started out as one of the beats in the Greenwich Village of the 1950s, sharing a room with Bob Dylan, performing onstage as a poet and then an improvisational comic (inspired by Lenny Bruce). Eventually, he made his way to California and was part of one of the first hippie communes: the Hog Farm.
The Hog Farm became most famous for its humanitarian work, feeding people and guiding bad trips at Woodstock. Wavy is the toothless, cowboy-hatted guy in the “Woodstock” documentary who announces, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.”
He was on the bus with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, protested the war in Vietnam, and helped create a camp for kids (Camp Winnarainbow) that teaches circus skills and yoga. He’s a jester, clown and political satirist who found a way to fund a program to provide sight-saving cataract surgery in remote villages of Nepal.
Esrick has testimony from a variety of people – from veteran Hog Farmers (who joined Wavy on a bus caravan from Europe to India) to Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. But the best witness of all is Wavy himself: bald, pot-bellied, with a bad back and an unquenchable spirit. He’s the holy fool who gets the joke and keeps on living it. He even has his own Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream flavor.
There’s nothing about the filmmaking that’s much more than standard about “Saint Misbehavin’” – except the subject himself: Wavy Gravy, an American original who continues to practice random acts of kindness in a life full of good karma.