Head (1968)

What is HEAD all about?
Only John Brockman's shrink knows for sure!

When England gave us the Beatles, NBC responded with a sitcom.

The Monkees made its TV debut in September of 1966 and introduced America to a Pre-Fab Four--Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork, four up-and-coming musicians who ran around everywhere and got into crazy 1960s sitcommy situations. It lasted two seasons and even picked up an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. My sisters and I loved the show as kids, and we even have select episodes on videotape in storage somewhere.

Outside of the boob tube, they were a real life honest-to-goodness band. They made albums, played concerts and attracted a large number of groupies, even after their TV show ended. They even got back together for a reunion in 1986, when reruns of their show brought on a whole new wave of Monkees fans. And a lot of their music is actually pretty good--"Pleasant Valley Sunday", "Last Train to Clarksville", "Daydream Believer"...that one song they play at the end of those Chase credit card commercials...

In short, the Monkees are the only manufactured pop group that I have respect for. And this is coming from someone who survived the darkest days of the turn-of-the-century boy band craze.

Partly because of their music, but also because they made this:

Conceived by the band on a tape recorder alongside director/producer/writer Bob Rafelson and co-writer Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) during a trip to a resort in California--with a little help from their friend Mary Jane, if you know what I mean--Head is the antithesis of the Monkees' TV show, an unsubtle deconstruction of the vehicle which made them idols to millions of screaming teenyboppers, a middle finger to the mass media if you will.

Don't let its G-rating confuse you--there isn't any language or nudity or sex in it, but the movie is actually quite dark, darker than any episode of the TV series. There is a piece of footage of a Viet Cong operative getting shot point blank in the head on camera which is used at certain points throughout the film. The movie also begins with one of the Monkees jumping off a bridge...and then ends with all four Monkees jumping off the same bridge.

As a matter of fact, many theaters slapped the film with a "mature audiences only" label because of its psychedelic nature, which kept the band's underage fan base at a distance. This, along with a poor marketing campaign, production delays which saw the film come out two months after the TV show was canceled, and flat-out indifference from the hipper adult crowd it was aimed at, led to an abysmal performance at the box office. The accompanying soundtrack album also became the lowest peaking Monkees LP on the American charts.

Quite ironically, Head also marked the beginning of the end for the Monkees--having cut ties with Rafelson and executive producer Bert Schneider after they learned they wouldn't get writing credit for the film, Peter Tork left the group in 1969 out of exhaustion, and the band broke up completely in 1970. However, it did finally get critical respect in 1973 during a special screening with Raybert Production's other two films, Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces, and since then it has become a cult classic, either for its innovative surrealist approach to film-making or its slow descent into madness.


Normally this would be the part of the review where I give an extensive and occasionally sarcastic review of the plot without giving too much of it away, but...this movie doesn't have one. No storyline, no continuity, nothing. Instead we are given a series of vignettes linked in stream-of-consciousness fashion with nothing whatsoever in common outside of a biting satirical undertone. The film doesn't even have any opening credits, choosing to drop us straight into the action right at the beginning.

Think of it as an extended episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus--only with more songs in it and nobody wearing a dress.

Well, okay, one guy in a dress.

As I've said before, the movie is the antithesis of the TV show. It references the tropes it established--Davy is the chick magnet, Peter is the dummy, Mike is the deadpan and Micky is the wild one--as well as their experiences during its production--many of the studio's veteran actors weren't pleased to see them and even walked out of the commissary whenever they came in. A recurring motif is the Monkees being ushered into a big black room with the door closed behind them, an allegory to the break room that the studio set up for them so they wouldn't wander around off-set. There is also the occasional jab at other topics such as commercialism, celebrity culture, the war in Vietnam, and the Hollywood movie machine. We see the Monkees sitting in a trench in the middle of a war scene as they fight to advance upon--the stage for their next concert, where after a performance of "Circle Sky", the mob of screaming teenagers charge upon them and literally tear them limb from limb (or their respectively dressed mannequins, anyway). During all this, Micky wails on a Coke machine in the middle of a desert and eventually blows it up with a tank, Peter punches a lunch lady in the face, and all four of them get sucked into a vacuum cleaner.

This moment brought to you by Pepsi-Cola.

The movie also sports a number of big name or soon-to-be big name guest stars: fellow musician Frank Zappa, former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, pro boxer Sonny Liston, veteran actor Victor Mature, more psychotic veteran actor Timothy Carey, the future Mrs. Fronk-en-steen Teri Garr, and uncredited cameo appearances by Nicholson and his future Easy Rider co-star Dennis Hopper.

Also look for Green Bay linebacker Ray Nitschke as an American football player who constantly tackles Peter while chanting "We're number one, we're number one" before throwing him his helmet.

And of course, no movie starring a band would be complete without an original soundtrack. And the music here is a major departure from the pop rock as heard on the TV show--particularly Carole King and Gerry Goffin's "Porpoise Song" which bookends the movie, which has to be the most out there song they've ever done. Other musical highlights include Davy Jones singing Harry Nillson's "Daddy's Song" and dancing with choreographer Toni Basil as their costumes change colors, and also the aptly named "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again" during a beautifully trippy dance montage at Mike's birthday party. The comparatively slower "As We Go Along" segment is pretty good, too, if you need a place to catch your breath between all the cutaways.

Micky may have been so fine he blew her mind, but who could attract the girls like Davy?

In closing, if you like psychedelic rock music, experimental cinema or just enjoy a good old fashioned mindscrew, I highly recommend this movie. Those who enjoy looking at movies from an analytical viewpoint will have a field day with it as well. Me? Well, I fall in all of these camps, so I friggin' love this movie. It isn't as linear as A Hard Day's Night or Help! or, hell, even the High School Musical movies, but it doesn't really need to be. Its sole purpose is to tear down the Monkees' image in the eyes of the media--and considering its take at the box office, it wound up succeeding beyond anyone's wildest imaginations.

My only qualm with it is that you kinda have to know a bit about the Monkees going into this film, since out of context I suppose it would be a little confusing. There is sort of an introductory segment of the film in which the band admits there really isn't a story and they "might tell you one thing, but [they'd] only take it back." Suffice to say it isn't for everybody, but for anyone who's eager, it's a pretty fun ride.

Between Head and the band going their separate ways, they had one last fling on the idiot box--the 1969 TV special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee.

You think this film was confusing...

Despite all their rage, they're still just rats in a cage.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I refused to watch this for the longest time. I had heard it went against the optimism of the series, an optimism which helped carry me through my years of Severe Depression. But eventually, after having watched each episode a hundred times, I got bored and decided to watch Head. I ended up watching this movie 16 times. I'm still not too big a fan of their choosing to blow up their image, but I'm fascinated by dreams, and this reminded me of a dream.