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Can You Dig It? A Look Back At ‘Head,’ The Trippy, Risky Monkees Movie
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The Monkees: Head

This piece is going to discuss Head, the only theatrical film by the famous 1960s pop group The Monkees. But, in order to do that, I need to put a little bit of the flavor and attitude of the times that led to such a colorful, wild and loose project, into proper perspective, if I may.

If the 1960s were indicative of anything, it was risk. Obviously it’s impossible to condense such a turbulent, vivid, alive decade as the 1960s into one bite-size word, but if one was challenged to do so, the word “risk” would certainly be a top contender.

We all know about the main iconic images of the 1960s in terms of that risk factor: a young president in John F. Kennedy, who came in a whirlwind election and was blown away just as fast that Dallas afternoon in November 1963, the same with his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King in 1968; Vietnam and Civil unrest, bombings and riots, globally, it seemed the 1960s were submerged in a water tank, with its inhabitants barely coming up for air.

The musical arts experienced a flurry of risky activity as well during this decade. What started out as fallout from 1950s, with “safe” singers still in their cardigans warbling about women named “Venus” at the turn of the decade, ended with most musicians screaming for turbulent change, using the credo set by the militant Malcolm X, “By Any Means Necessary.”

The Beatles not only brought America to its collective musical knees with its passions and splintering every convention set forth by the early Preamble of American Rock and Roll which had its genesis by way of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, but even in their embryonic days, where they were four lovable mop tops on British Invasion leashes, they showed that music could be done with a sly wink, a Groucho Marx wit, and an attitude which reduced what came before it to simple bread and butter musical pap.

Their influence spread far and wide across the globe with scores of imitators trying to emulate their nicely honed package, using the blueprints they set forth. It wasn’t just the music, it was the attitude, the fashion sense, the way they carried themselves — all was put under a microscope to be drawn and quartered. The Beatles were revolutionary in many ways indeed, even in the cinema. 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night released by United Artists, used panache and style to showcase the band members’ personalities and also broke new ground. Directed by Richard Lester (Superman II, Petula), A Hard Day’s Night was full of cinematic moxie, something also not seen in the musical films that preceded it. Most of Elvis’ and other musical artists’ film vehicles during the 1950s were tepid at best, with only the music being the acting force to create pandemonium in the theaters. By contrast, A Hard Day’s Night, with its wild chaotic filming style, kinetic editing, creative use of cinematography, incredibly smart and razor sharp script, and use cameras which free flowed cinema verite style and caught action on tracking shots as well, was equally as new and fresh as The Beatles’ themselves. While most rock and roll and music movies in general are remembered as campy puff pieces in cinema history, A Hard Day’s Night is not only remembered as an early Beatles curio, but also one of the greatest, well-made films of all time, transcending its “rock and roll movie” foundations.

Just as plenty of American bands and record labels tried to get in on the Beatles’ act, American television tried to get in on the success of A Hard Day’s Night. For producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, they saw in that film something which could be brought to the small screen: a half-hour sitcom in which a band could also romp and run around just like The Beatles did on screen. Changing the setting to a decidedly very American motif, putting an American band living together in a cheap beachfront apartment, and reversing the Beatles’ story in A Hard Day’s Night and presenting the band as struggling musicians, but still loveable and always zany and positive, thus The Monkees was born. (The name itself was also a play on “The Beatles.”) After over 400 applicants were tested and auditioned (including Stephen Stills and Charles Manson (!)) for the four roles needed for the program, the producers settled on former actor Micky Dolenz, real life and also struggling musicians Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith, and in a nice stroke of casting, did cast one English actor, Davy Jones, the former racehorse jockey and England Broadway impressario.

Once the four men were in place, a pilot was quickly made, and a bunch of session and well-known songwriters and musicians within the industry (a young Neil Diamond among others) created music for the program, ala what A Hard Day’s Night did, combining zany comedy with hit songs. Debuting on NBC-TV on September 12, 1966, coupled with the marketing genius to release a single only weeks before to create buzz, (the number one smash “Last Train to Clarksville”) The Monkees already showed the influence of A Hard Day’s Night by just the opening credit sequence alone. That opening, replete with under-cranked camera work and over-cranked camera work, in which action sped up, utilizing creative angles and staging like used the Beatles film coupled with hyper kinetic editing, at once served as homage to the movie before it AND out and out blatant thievery.

But regardless of the blatant imitations, The Monkees was a smash success. Young people across the country lapped up the program and the music and all the merchandising that went with it. Millions of records flew out of record stores across the country. Scores of highbrow and lowbrow music critics scoffed at the “manufactured image” that they purported the group really was, a thrown-together product of four men who had session musicians play their instruments, while they pretended to play them on their program. But to the viewing and listening public it didn’t matter. The show itself wasn’t in critical disarray — it won two Emmys that year, even besting Get Smart for “Outstanding Comedy Program.”

The whirlwind success of the program ended almost as abruptly as it started, as a year and a half later the show was cancelled, the record sales started to wane, internal bickering with management and within the group further alienated any chance that the band would continue. One of its last gasps however, at the time not a huge one, and still only remains a cult hit and a curio in decades that followed it, was their own theatrical release, entitled Head. Released in 1968, it marks a product from the Monkees’ machine right at the tail end of their comet.

Head, to this day, has a division like the opinion of The Monkees themselves. The tragic death of Davy Jones recently has given a kind of universal appeal and global love once again for the group, whose surviving members are now in their late 60s, but before that tragic moment, there was still the love/hate relationship with the band, and none so more than with this film release.

The Monkees: Head. On set with producer Jack Nicholson

Right before their second and last season wrapped up, the four Monkees, and aforementioned producer Bob Rafelson (who would helm the directorial chair for the film), and one Jack Nicholson — who was still climbing the Hollywood ladder at that time looking for the success that was only a year or so away for him — went to Ojai, California. Armed with, as the story goes, a tape recorder and a large amount of cannabis, the six men turned on the tape recorder after sampling their libations and started to spout a sundry amount of ideas into it, as haphazard and eclectic as a free jazz record by Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler. Nicholson then took the tapes, and according to Rafelson, shaped the transcriptions of the tapes into a somewhat coherent screenplay, under the influence of LSD no less.

The band, when they found that Nicholson had done this, expected to also get a screenplay credit and was dutifully informed that they weren’t. The result was that Dolenz, Jones, and Nesmith refused to show up to the set for the first day of filming, leaving only Tork there that day. Already the line in sand was drawn. Cooler heads started to prevail by the second day however, and the shooting began of the picture, taking place all across Southern California, including Pasadena and Long Beach, commenced during the months of February to May 1968.

Upon completion, a soundtrack album was assembled, in which the cover was made of aluminized polyester, which created the image of a mirror, so when the record owner looked directly at it, would get a reflection of their “Head,” hence the title of the film and soundtrack. While the film boasted a live recording of a Michael Nesmith track entitled “Circle Sky,” the soundtrack had a studio version, which upset the other members of the group, again drawing the lines in the sand. However, the soundtrack and the film boasts some of the most adventurous music the Monkees ever attempted: the beautiful Carole King-penned “Porpoise Song”; the wonderfully fragile “As We Go Along”; Davy Jones doing early vaudevillian cabaret on Harry Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song”; and the best of the bunch in my opinion, the Peter Tork-penned and sung psychedelic rocker “Do I Have To Do This Over Again?”

It turned out, however, that that transgression about “Circle Sky” was the least of the Monkees’ worries. The film itself was released on November 6, 1968 to no fanfare whatsoever and died a rather rapid death in the theaters. The fact that the only promotion for the film was a black and white commercial of a man’s head rotating from left profile to front center and giving no clue that this was a Monkees production, didn’t help. (Later rush promotions after the release of the film showed clips from it.) Another Achilles’ heel at the time was that the film takes the image of the band from their TV show and completely destroys it, in mock imagery which shows their consciousness of their manufactured image. With the utter failure of Head, the final nail in the coffin of the Monkees fantastic and quick successful ride was firmly in place.

So what IS Head all about? Most Monkees fans have never even heard of it, or if they have, it’s easily dismissed as a large failure, nothing on par with the TV show or the whimsical songs that the band are best known for, the cute, safe pop music, and oh so adorable image that’s beloved to this day. To easily dismiss the picture, however, would be wrong, as it remains a fantastic curio and a wonderful piece of filmmaking and a bold, experimental, RISKY, funny, lighthearted, hammer attack of a film which has enough ideas to fill ten pictures.

Indeed, the film takes risks, opening with the Monkees literally jumping off a bridge and in effect creating the visual metaphor of committing suicide of their original images, using cheerleading scenes in Pasadenas Rose Bowl to cheer on the war (Gimmie a “W”! Gimme a “A” Gimme an “R”!), and then parodying Vietnam in the same way that so many lighter-hearted sacred cows were skewered on the TV show. The aforementioned live sequence, which happens rather early in the film, alone is a risk because it shows the band actually playing their instruments. It’s intercut with screaming fans in the audience AND intense sequences of Vietnam, possibly the only G-rated film in history to show a graphic execution. (It shows, without apology, the famous execution of Viet Cong operative Nguyen Van Lem.) Another interesting thought about this sequence is that it’s showing the connection among performer, audience, and war long before Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters explored many of the same themes in Floyd’s seminal 1980 release The Wall. Ending with the audience coming on stage and literally tearing the band members apart in a scene that is as humorous as it is eye opening, Head already sets its tones.

Once those tones are in place, the movie rambles all over the place, breaking down the fourth wall with characters talking to the audience, the movie becomes a film within the film. We see action in a scene only to hear “cut” and see the camera with Rafelson and Nicholson talking to the Monkees about the script, the Monkees winding up in a large patch of black hair as “dandruff,” then in a giant black box and under the thumb of a strange and large giant played by old school Hollywood actor Victor Mature. Then there are psychedelic scenes, interspersed with solarized effects, old-style dancing sequences, mixed with old-style movie making. In fact, the movie also takes notes on cinema STYLES and smashes those conventions as well. Head is one big jumble of a free form chaotic, yet charming mess of a motion picture. It’s a crazy non-narrative collage and a patchwork of ideas written and cinematic, and when it’s all over, one wonders what they just saw.

The Monkees: Head. Boxer Sonny Liston and Davy Jones

Adding to the oddity are the number of bizarre cameos, ranging from ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello to the late boxer Sonny Liston to musical genius Frank Zappa. This cinematic gumbo certainly takes on more than it can chew, but for the viewer who’s able to absorb all of this eye candy and crazy jarring styles at once, it goes down easy.

In the years that followed, Head actually gained some respect; a re-release in 1973 started to make critics take notice, especially The New York Times. Fallout from the film actually garnered success for some of its principals involved in the production, Bob Rafelson went on to direct Five Easy Pieces, which remains one of the benchmarks of early 1970s cinema (with Nicholson as its star); Rafelson’s production company BBS was responsible for Easy Rider released a year after Head and became the signature film for the youth culture of the late 1960s; the film’s musical director was Ken Thorne, who had a post-Head career scoring Superman II and Superman III; and of course we all know what happened to actor Jack Nicholson.

Alas, the film itself, however, remains very hard to find for the home market. Two VHS releases came out in the 1980s and 1990s respectively and quickly went out of print. They can be found on eBay presently at varying prices. It finally was released on DVD in Bob Rafelson’s Criterion Collection box set in December 2010, which assembled many of his critically lauded films, though proper release for the picture on DVD or BluRay remains to be seen. Possibly with the death of Davy Jones, there might now be a market for it as deaths of this nature usually act as a springboard to release a tidalwave of products in its wake, new Monkees products notwithstanding.

So Head is essential not only to Monkees fans, but to fans of independent, risk-taking films. To fans of cinema who maybe like to go a bit further in their exploration of their choices, who try to think outside the box, Head remains a no-brainer. It’s a film for moviegoers who like to transcend once in a while the steady, easy going diet of popular films which don’t take risks, because, once a viewer sees Head, for the first time or the 10th time, the risks taken net the rewards indeed. Another artifact and footnote from the 1960s that deserves its place in that rich, amazing, RISKY history of that era.

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