Monkee business

Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith of The Monkees in the cult film “Head.” Courtesy The Criterion Collection.
In November 1968, Columbia Pictures released “Head,” a feature film starring The Monkees. The film was produced on a low budget of approximately $750,000 and, after a wave of withering reviews from the New York and Hollywood media, it was quickly withdrawn, grossing a mere $16,111 during its brief theatrical run. Fast-forward a half-century and “Head” is now considered to be among the most innovative works of the late 1960s.

In November 1968, Columbia Pictures released “Head,” a feature film starring The Monkees. 

The film was produced on a low budget of approximately $750,000 and, after a wave of withering reviews from the New York and Hollywood media, it was quickly withdrawn, grossing a mere $16,111 during its brief theatrical run. Fast-forward a half-century and “Head” is now considered to be among the most innovative works of the late 1960s.

“The film was ahead of its time in its technique and editing and visual sampling,” observes Peter Mills, author of the book “The Monkees, Head and the 60s.” “It was just not what people were expecting from a pop group.”

But, then again, The Monkees were not a typical pop group. Conceived as a television comedy series about an aspiring band, The Monkees were assembled by producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider and featured British stage actor Davy Jones, former child actor Micky Dolenz, Greenwich Village folk music singer Peter Tork and Texas singer/songwriter Michael Nesmith. The series “The Monkees” debuted on NBC in September 1966 and followed the pattern of absurdist humor found in The Beatles’ movies “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!,” complete with zany sequences tied to the band’s songs. 

The obvious emulation of the Fab Four led to the Monkees’ being dubbed the “Pre-Fab Four” by the entertainment press, which curtly reported that the band only provided vocals and did not play instruments on their first two studio albums. (This was not due to lack of talent but lack of time, with the quartet required to spend the majority of its time on the set of the show. A group of studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, featured in a recent PBS documentary, supplied the instrumentals, as it did for hundreds of other recordings.)

To almost everyone’s surprise, including the group’s members, The Monkees became a major musical force, with chart-topping albums and hit tunes including “I’m a Believer” and “Last Train to Clarksville.” “The Monkees” won the Emmy Award as Best Comedy Series and the cast was invited by The Beatles to sit in on the recording sessions for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” 

More surprising, The Monkees congealed into a single unit and started to agitate for greater control over its music, successfully getting producer Don Kirshner removed from oversight of their albums. But when The Monkees demanded the series change into a variety show format, NBC cancelled the show in February 1968 after two seasons.

Rafelson and Schneider then opted to transition The Monkees from small screen to big screen, with Schneider serving as executive producer and Rafelson directing while co-producing and co-writing with Jack Nicholson, who at the time was wallowing in B-grade films and was eager to do more behind-the-camera work. The film project, which began without a title and was even called “Untitled” before “Head” was selected, was positioned as an attack on the entertainment industry in general and on the artificial roots of The Monkees phenomenon in particular.

“The movie is essentially about us being victims, always the victim of circumstance,” Dolenz recalled in a 2010 interview. “It was about the whole zeitgeist, and deconstruction of, not only The Monkees, but also a lot to do with the deconstruction of Hollywood.”

Framed in a surreal, stream-of-consciousness flow of jolting sequences rich with social and political commentary, the film was a seismic shift from the jollity of “The Monkees” television series in both spirit and style. Viewed today, “Head” is closer in personality to contemporary comedy cynicism against authority and social protocol and the antithesis of the too-safe humor of 1968 Hollywood. 

The opening segment, with Dolenz leaping from a bridge and being rescued from a watery grave by two mermaids, is stunning for both the initial violence of his death spiral and the visual shock when the underwater sequence glows with kaleidoscopic solarization effects that are mirrored on the soundtrack by “Porpoise Song,” an intoxicating composition by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Music historian Mark Arnold, co-author of “Long Title: Looking for the Good Times; Examining The Monkees’ Songs, One by One,” states that “Porpoise Song” is “possibly the best song The Monkees ever did. It is sung with passion by both Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, and you’d be hard-pressed to find another song of the era that evokes so much psychedelia.”

The film offers startling emotional shifts, most notably when newsreel footage of the execution of Viet Cong fighter Nguyen Văn Lém by a fatal shot to his head is echoed by a woman screaming — not at the horror of the wartime killing, but in excitement that The Monkees are in concert. The performance footage of the Nesmith-penned “Circle Sky” is intercut with Vietnam War footage — “Head” was the rare film in 1968 to voice unapologetic opposition to the war — and ends with fans rushing the stage to tear apart The Monkees, who are revealed to be mannequins.

But “Head” is also rich in taking sharp jabs at hoary Hollywood staples, including Arabian fantasies, gangster flicks and dum-dum commercials. The latter is particularly bizarre with the Monkees playing dandruff flakes in Victor Mature’s scalp. Throughout the film, The Monkees keep breaking the proverbial fourth wall to comment on the film’s progression and even fight with Rafelson on what they’re doing. A zany mix of cameo appearances from icons at different corners of the cultural scene — Annette Funicello, Frank Zappa (walking a steer), cult movie star Timothy Carey, boxing champ Sonny Liston and A-list stripper Carol Doda — add to the unpredictability of “Head.”

Dolenz would later claim, “We didn’t want to make a 90-minute version of the TV show,” but The Monkees’ fans were probably expecting that and were baffled at what they found in “Head.” It didn’t help that Columbia Pictures gave the greenlight on a marketing effort that, incredibly, made no mention of The Monkees’ involvement in the film. Another marketing effort offered quickie clips from the film’s wild sequences, but strangely ignored The Monkees’ music, which ranged in style from the jaunty show-tune vibe of the Harry Nilsson-penned “Daddy’s Song” to Nesmith’s full-rock assault “Circle Sky” to the Carole King-Toni Stern ethereal meditation “As We Go Along.” The last turned up on the soundtrack of last year’s indie film hit “Lady Bird.”

“The main thing that struck me overall after hearing the soundtrack and watching the film is how good the songs are,” observes music historian Mark Arnold. “The six songs are virtually the best in The Monkees’ canon. Unfortunately, the film and accompanying soundtrack album died quick deaths. Although the soundtrack did peak at number 45 on the charts, it was a far cry from the Monkeemania a year earlier.”

For years, “Head” was kept out of circulation because of its poor initial reception and its perceived role in speeding the demise of the beloved band. Monkees historian Peter Mills notes the film never played in Great Britain until 1977 and only then at a single British Film Institute screening as part of a Rafelson retrospective. 

Most Americans got their first glimpse of “Head” when it played in an edited version on Dec. 30, 1974, on the “CBS Late Movie.” Into the 1980s, the rise of cable television and a new interest in The Monkees helped give “Head” more visibility. Today, the film is part of The Criterion Collection, the home entertainment label, and Film Comment columnist Chuck Stephens offered a cogent tribute via an essay in the film’s Blu-ray release.

“‘Head’ is 1968 in an acid tab,” Stephens writes. “Lost somewhere between wartime agonies and freewheeling love-in, it’s time in capsule form, history as hop-headed high jinks and hilarious pop-cult aggression, a fearless exposé — and a perverse sort of celebration — of the commodification of The Monkees, the ‘Ulysses’ of a hip New Hollywood about to be born.”

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