I must admit I'm a big fan of 60s culture and its films--from the spy genre (Sean Connery as James Bond, Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, James Coburn as Derek Flint), to the blend of light-hearted comedy, romance, and thriller, (How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn and Peter O'toole, Charade with Cary Grant, The Thomas Crown Affair with Steve McQueen), to the counter-culture films of the latter part of the decade (Easy Rider, Blow-Up, The Trip, Head). Yes, that's right. Head starring The Monkees.
When Head was first released in 1968, it was largely panned by the critics and ignored by movie goers. By this time, The Monkees' TV series had been canceled and their record sales were dropping. Years later, Head was described as having a cult following and even praised by some critics as well-worth seeing and a good counter-culture movie of the time.
Some backstory. After acquiring a stereotyped image of "the pre-fabricated four", a carbon copy of The Beatles but without their talent, The Monkees, along with the TV show's creator, Bob Rafeson, set out to deconstruct their image. Added to this was the scandal that had broken out that The Monkees were not playing their own instruments on their first two albums. The truth was that The Monkees were not allowed to play any instruments according to the contract. By the third album, Headquarters, The Monkees had fought against Don Kirchner's dictatorial control and won the right to play their instruments.
Another element of the story that borders on both surreal and paradoxical is that the show itself was about four out-of-work musicians in Marx-Brothers like scenarios that seemed to also emulate the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night. Full of zany illogic and humor, the show was apolitical and appealed to a strong teeny bopper base of screaming girls, wild for Davey Jones or the lovable dummy played by Peter Tork.
But the four actors hired to play The Monkees had to become The Monkees in real life. The studio wanted them to tour at concerts. In 1967, they had outsold more albums than both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. They were expected to maintain their personas as four fun-loving and harmless guys who loved to play music. The problem was that they couldn't shed their image as Beatles-wannabes and move on to being viewed as serious musicians and singers and songwriters. They wanted to be respected by more than just the teeny boppers. They were tired of being told by Don Kirchner which songs they must play.
Head, with a script written by a Jack Nicholson on acid, with input from The Monkees, directed by none other than Bob Rafeson, helped to deliver the final blow to that fabricated image. The movie was not an extension of the TV series.
Although the movie is made up of skits, rather than a continuous narrative, (much like A Hard Day's Night), and although many of the skits, satirizing different genres of movies or referencing various film characters, is overall--a dark film. In a kind of over obvious way, the film's motif is how The Monkees were trapped, both literally and figuratively, in a black box. Trapped into being . . . well . . . The Monkees.
The opening sequence has Mickey Dolenz jumping from a bridge into the water in an act of possible suicide/escape. The film also ends on that same note with all four Monkees running from their captors, jumping over the same bridge, only to wind up being caught and placed back in a cage overseen by the menacing Victor Mature, who perhaps represented the all-powerful studio system they could not escape from.
In another scene, the same pretty girl is kissing all four Monkees, one after the other, only to conclude that they all more or less kiss the same, as if there is nothing distinguishable about them as individuals.
To add to the dark tone, the film contains actual footage of napalm bombings in Vietnam, families escaping military attacks, and an execution in the street of a Viet Cong Operative. And there is The Monkees "War Chant," written by Nicholson, (a kind of parody of the Boyce and Hart TV show theme song), where they claim that "the money is in and they are made of tin and that they have no philosophies." (As an interesting aside, the movie's soundtrack, by the way, although not containing many songs, is considered by some as their best music.)
For me, the most telling image of the film's deconstruction of the band, is when hordes of screaming young girls attack The Monkees on stage, rip off their clothes, only to find that they are department store manikins. Not real people.
And then there is the comedic but highly improbable boxing match between Davey Jones (yes, talk about going against typecasting) and Sonny Liston. Here, we see a bloodied and bruised Davey Jones being knocked repeatedly to the mat. A far cry from his cute image as a cuddly toy on the series. Later, we see the same Davy punching out people in a parody of spy films or taking on a gang of outlaws headed by Tim Carey, while he repeats the same words Jack Palance's character uttered in Shane – “Prove it."
Overall, with the movie's non-narrative structure, the use of psychedelic color filters and solarisation (where dark areas appear light and vice versa), especially in the dance and the water sequences, the film resembles an acid trip.
The film is bolstered by an all-star cast in both cameo and minor roles. Folks like Annette Funicello, Dennis Hopper, Carol Doda, Frank Zappa, Jack Nicholson, dancer and choreographer, Toni Basil, and others. And much of the film, and especially at the end, is haunted by the ominous presence of Victor Mature, who had come out of retirement. In one all-too-obvious scene at the end, Victor Mature is the giant (reminiscent of Gulliver's Travels) trying to step on the Lilliputian Monkees in the desert. In another scene in perhaps the same desert, Mickey Dolenz fires a tank at a coke-cola machine that is empty. Another swipe at commercialism and consumerism.
So what did the movie accomplish for The Monkees?
Well, it did help to kill their already fading careers as the pre-fab four. By 1970, after the release of the album, Changes, featuring only two remaining Monkees: Mickey and Davey, the Monkees were done. At least for another decade before their reunions. Mike went on to have a successful solo career in country music, Mickey became a TV director/producer in England, Peter became a school teacher, then formed other bands, and Davey--well, for some strange reason his solo career never took off.
It did succeed in alienating their teeny bopper fan base but it did not acquire a more adult audience as they had hoped.
For me, what is interesting and lasting about Head is that it shows the global effect of the media in shaping our perceptions of personalities. And that is something that is more with us now than it has ever been. How the media influences our perception of political figures (like Trump or Conway or Clinton, for example) or Hollywood celebrities. And how hard it is for any of them to break out of that mold that is cast by the public and media. How realistic is our perception of celebrity personalities? What really goes on behind the camera? Does the media actually create reality?
There is one scene in Head that keeps returning to me: Mickey Dolenz, playing a soldier in the old West, is shot through with arrows. He grabs each arrow and announces to the director that he's done with the fake arrows and the fake sets, and he walks through the wallpaper that contains imagery of endless prairies. It kind of predates The Truman Show.
And in this way, with its exploration of media vs. truth, and the difficulty to break out of stereotypes, Head may not have aged that badly.
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