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Laughably dated, but surprisingly watchable; recommended for all Jeff Bridges fans
This film surprised me; I didn't expect it to even be worth the $1 price of the horrible Digiview catalog, but it turned out to be nicely acted. Veteran TV toilers Ruth McDevvit, Carl Betz, Vera Miles, Howard Duff and even Sal Mineo turn in some rather fine performances, but of course it's Jeff Bridges who steals the show. Early in his career, it's (almost) the last thing Bridges would do for television, since his breakthrough "The Last Picture Show" came out the same year. Plus, relative newcomer Tyne Daley gives us some fantastic work (especially during her character's childbirth scenes).
That said, the movie itself is barely mediocre. Only Bridges' acting elevates this above the average 'made-for' (made-for-television movie) of it's day. Filled with clichéd characters and stereotyped situations, it might have seemed very original in, say, 1967. Coming from 1971, at the end of the hippie movement instead of the beginning, it's just grindingly derivative. Like most television of the time, it's painfully obvious the writer & director have little or no understanding of the hippie culture they're trying so earnestly to portray.
Especially the decidedly UN-psychedelic background "songs", which mostly consist of a large male & female chorus sing/chanting bad "poetic" commentary on what we're seeing. Think "Paint Your Wagon" on acid (I'm sure the composer was). Near the beginning they persist in repeating the phrase "magic bus", and you can almost hear Pete Townshend wishing he could sue them, just to make them STOP... And ohmigod the whistling section -- somewhere near the middle, there's a dozen of them whistling, and I swear no two of them are in the same key. It's positively the worst whistling ever recorded, ever. (And maybe worth the dollar all by itself!)
The plot, also, is a sad waste of concept, although it does start out bright, with Bridges as a clean-cut proto-hippie who (somehow) convinces his mom, dad, and grandmother(!) to join him in 'dropping out' and taking out in an ancient, rebuilt bus, to find themselves, and hopefully America. Unfortunately, their tour (as far as we get to see it) consists entirely of visiting one ramshackle rock festival, apparently only a few days away from their suburban home. (The footage of the festival is genuine, however, obviously shot during the setup and daytime of some small festival somewhere, without any participation therefrom (and no music!), but featuring lots and lots of shots of real, genuine 1971 model hippies dancing, grooving, playing in the mud -- all the usual stuff. But it's obvious the 'camp' was shot nowhere near the festival itself, and the attempted montaging sometimes becomes hilariously bad.)
So, arriving at said festival, the Olsens set up near a small enclave of 5 hippies: the pregnant Daley & husband, Mineo's vaguely rebellious 'Burnout', the Token Black, and the Love Interest. Each character is exactly that obvious from the start, but all of them manage to transcend their crappy dialog and make us actually feel them as people. Especially Glynn Turman as "Bordo", the 'shaman', who runs around chanting and making faces in the worst possible witch-doctor-put-a-hoodoo-on-you fashion, spouting semi-nonsense in an ostentatious generic African accent. But somehow, someway, he actually makes it work. And gives a fantastic touch near the end, when he slips up and (very subtly) for just one line, talks in American to Grandma Rose -- and then immediately spits out more mumbo-jumbo (which Grandma fully 'digs', of course). Far out! (He would soon star in the 70's classic "Cooley High", which set a new standard for "black" films, with Turman's wooden-yet-somehow-compelling acting being a primary cause.)
It's not all bleak though, which justifies (I hope) this lengthy review; after all, while writer Lewis John Carlino might not 'grok' the hippies, it doesn't mean he doesn't get human beings. This is the same guy who wrote "The Great Santini" and the adaptation of "I Never Promised You A Rose Garden", after all. And director Paul Bogart (eventually) went on to do "Torch Song Trilogy", so we know they both had at least some talent in them. And, as I said, the ensemble's acting is actually worthwhile here; it certainly feels as if most everybody involved really cared about this production, and gave it their best.
So, overall, if you like to watch the craft of acting done well, you will likely enjoy this unimportant yet unassuming little film. If, that is, you can sit through the painful chanting chorus, the laughable suburban-sitcom setup, and the clichéd situations with sensible television resolutions by the end of the episode ... er, of the movie.
Which brings me to my last point: it doesn't mention it on the IMDb here, but it seems rather clear to me that this movie was (at least at some point) considered as a pilot episode. Without spoiling the internal plot threads, I can tell you that, by the end, its time to leave the festival:
Mom: Anybody know where we're going?
Son: Nope... you?
Mom (to Dad): You want to go home?
Dad: (thinks): No!
Swell the godawful "music", and cut to external shot of bus driving away along a coastal highway to who-knows-where, In Search Of America. And when I think about it, what a fantastic series it could have made! Each week, new adventures in their completely square psychedelic bus, discovering themselves, and America! Perhaps they even could have had a very special episode where they stop to help a broken-down Partridge Family, and Laurie falls in love with Bridges' character, and... on second thought: no. But still, a TV drama starring Jeff Bridges would have been something to see...
I should also mention that it's yet another awful transfer from Digiview, with no features, special or otherwise.
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