“Quite frankly, there was a bit of acid involved.”–Bob Rafelson on the genesis of Head
FEATURING: Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Victor Mature
PLOT: An official is cutting a ribbon on a bridge when the ceremony is interrupted by four young men (the Monkees) who leap off the bridge and into the water. We then see a number of sketches that find the Monkees in the trenches fighting a war, performing live concerts, enjoying hookahs in a harem, fighting boxer Sonny Liston in the ring, trapped in a giant metal box, and acting out other absurd vignettes that blend into each other. Throughout the film they find themselves pursued by a giant man played by Victor Mature, and the movie ends where it began as the entire cast is seen chasing the Monkees onto the same bridge, off which they once again leap.
- The Monkees were formed in 1965 for a TV sitcom about a band “that wanted to be the Beatles.” Although Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were cast for their acting abilities and presumed appeal to teenage girls rather than their musical chops, they developed into a tight band and had several hits. Their self-titled debut album reached #1 on the Billboard charts.
- Despite the band’s financial success, the actors were dissatisfied with the goofy television scripts, which featured stories like the band spending a night in a haunted house. “The Monkees” TV series lasted for only two seasons before cancellation.
- Head was the feature directing debut of Bob Rafelson, who had originally pitched the concept for the TV show and directed several episodes.
- The script was co-written by in his “acid” period. (One source says Nicholson directed at least one scene, uncredited). Nicholson also produced the soundtrack album, including assembling the sound collages.
- The Monkees themselves contributed to the original brainstorming sessions, but were denied screen writing credits; they staged a mini-protest, but were placated when the producers offered more money.
- With its surreal imagery and drug references, Head seems to be intended to destroy the Monkees wholesome image. The ad campaigns avoided mentioning the Monkees altogether.
- Head‘s notable cameos and bit parts include Rafelson, Nicholson, ,
- Rafelson’s next project as director was Five Easy Pieces (1970), starring Nicholson as an underachieving piano prodigy. It was nominated for four Oscars.
- Tork left the band soon after Head was released, and Nesmith resigned soon thereafter. The Monkees broke up by 1970, although Dolenz and Jones later recorded under the name with substitute musicians.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Monkees posing as dandruff in “the Big Victor”‘s hair. (In fact, a surprising number of Head‘s most memorable images involve the giant version of Victor Mature, especially if we assume that oversized eyeball Davy Jones finds staring at him from out of the medicine cabinet also belongs to Vic).
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Psychedelic mermaids; eye in a cabinet; “the Big Victor”
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It is tempting to describe Head as what might happen if a young Jack Nicholson were hired to write a treatment for a bubblegum boy band, then dropped acid and wrote a script that reimagined the boys as psychedelic tricksters wandering through a surreal series of cynical, self-aware scenarios set everywhere from the old West to a dandruff commercial, sprinkling in the most bizarrely eclectic assortment of pop-culture cameos imaginable. Actually, that’s pretty much the true story of how Head came to be, meaning reality scoops metaphor once again.
Theatrical trailer for Head
COMMENTS: In 1964, A Hard Days Night turned a little band from Liverpool from a curious mania affecting soppy young girls into a legitimate cultural phenomenon. The witty mockumentary script painted the Beatles as real-life characters with individual personalities, and ‘s use of underground movie techniques, lightly absurd humor, and rapid editing gave the band an unexpected artistic and intellectual cachet. Lester followed this hit up with Help!, a sequel which took the Beatles on a wacky adventure, with dour drummer Ringo chased by assassins from a blood cult. Lester’s successes in mixing rock n’ roll with big screen comedy were the inspiration for Bob Rafelson and partner Bert Schneider to invent the Monkees, an (initially fake) Beatlesesque band who would find time for zany escapades involving art thieves and aliens in between singing pop songs for screaming audiences once a week. Conceived as a cynical exploitation of youth culture, the band, its music, and the show hit at surprisingly big—for a couple of years. Still, the Monkees always appealed to a young demographic, and in the 1960s pop culture was moving fast. The band’s wholesome antics were already looking quaint and old-fashioned by 1968, when the Vietnam War, progressive politics, and (especially) psychedelic drugs were the foremost topics on youth culture’s collective mind. The Monkees were quickly canceled, and, ironically, the “pre-fab four,” conceived as an ersatz version of Lester’s Beatles, made their film debut with a movie that was the anti-Hard Days Night—a film that ended the band’s career, instead of launching it.
In Head, the Monkees are achingly aware of their own fakeness. They parody their own famous jingle theme song (“Hey hey we’re the Monkees/And people say we monkey around/But we’re too busy singing/To put anybody down…”) with a piece entitled “Ditty Diego (War Chant)”: “Hey, hey, we are the Monkees/You know we love to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies.” Here, at the end of their careers, they actually do find the time to put somebody down, taking swipes at warmongers, television executives, commercial peddlers, and phonies of every stripe. Their biggest target, however, is always themselves; they suggest that “the Monkees” as a prefab phenomenon are part of the problem rather than the solution. Check out the cut from the famous (and shocking) execution of a suspected Viet Cong spy by a North Vietnamese general to a shot of a screaming girl in the grips of Monkeemania. Later, there’s an even more self-deprecating edit, where we see footage of a Vietnamese refugee family holding their ears in horror (presumably to block the sounds of explosions) in the middle of the Monkees performance of “Circle Sky.” Micky complains, “I don’t want to do this anymore” in the middle of a Western sketch, before tearing his way through the painted backdrop. A greasy spoon waitress insults the band (“Well, if it isn’t God’s gift to the 8-year old… are you still paying tribute to?”) In one bit Davy plays violin for a rapturous crowd, but when the rest of the band calls him away he drops his bow and the music keeps playing (a reference to the rumors that the Monkees didn’t play their own instruments). Peter frets about his image after a scene requires him to coldcock a lady (“Bob, it’s a movie for kids, their not going to dig it” he complains to the director, while getting his makeup refreshed). The atmosphere of genial self-loathing, the Monkees’ willingness to make themselves the punchline in a very raw way, gives Head a distinctive and sympathetic tone.
If Lester’s Beatles were all about making themselves into larger-than-life icons, Rafelson’s Monkees would instead be about tearing down rock star illusions. Rafelson had a darker outlook on life, and little taste for comedy, a genre he never indulged in again after divorcing himself from the Monkees. Watching the existential agony of 1970’s Five Easy Pieces, a bleak portrait of Jack Nicholson’s talented but emotionally scarred character perversely dodging success and happiness at every opportunity, makes the idea of Rafelson yoking himself to the perpetually sunny-side up Monkees seem even more ironic. Most of the acerbic, self-aware disillusionment in Head, I assume, reflects Rafelson’s attitudes, even more than those of the now-weary Monkees themselves. After all, who’s the bigger artistic joke, the four goons hired to play the dimwitted heartthrobs in a pretend rock band, or the guy who came up with the idea and took out the casting ad in Variety?
While Rafelson is responsible for Head‘s tone of jokey self-loathing, it’s likely Nicholson who was responsible for the movie’s ample weirdness. Some younger fans may find it surprising that this Hollywood icon, who has been nominated for more Academy Awards than any other male actor, was, in the late 1960s, a huge LSD enthusiast and proselytizer. In 1967 Nicholson had already written and convinced mentor The Trip, as well as starring as a character with the revealing name “Stoney” in the hippie-dippy fantasia Psych-Out. Nicholson reportedly indulged his taste for the lysergic molecule once more while writing the script for Head, which may help explain such visions as the orange and green solarized mermaids who rescue the drowning Monkees, the giant eyeball Davy Jones finds lurking behind the mirror in a public men’s room, and the massive Victor Mature arising from behind the ghost town set to taunt the boys. The anything-goes attitude of the script, which flips around between Lawrence of Arabia scenarios and boxing movie melodramas as of someone had left the remote control in the hands of a frying Timothy Leary, shows an acidic brand of surrealism that is matched by the melted-Crayola-on-the-lens liquid lightshow visuals (already a cliched the graphic code for LSD by 1968). The out-and-out surrealism—the (literally) big hallucinations—are a sign of the turmoil of the larger-than-life, apocalyptic times. The happy Beatles might scurry around on their movie adventures like they’d been lightly toking in between takes, but in Nicholson’s hands the Monkees would go on a mystical, manic, life-altering acid trip.to produce and direct the prototypical acid movie,
The canonical narrative about Head says that it was a deliberate act of career suicide by the band, who were fed up with dopey scripts written to appease their teenage fanbase, and were sick of being treated as musical jokes by the turned-on cognoscenti who were grooving to the far-out sounds of Hendrix and the Airplane. Less charitably, Head could be seen as a “Bob Hope in a Beatles wig” phenomenon, whereby the terminally unhip try to get with-it fast before they fade away into obsolescence. In this scenario the Monkees, who were invented in 1965 to evoke the already-obsolete Beatles of 1964, suddenly upgrade their wigs to match 1968’s hippie fashion. If the Monkees new psychedelic incarnation in Head had been a hit, who doubts that they would have survived that final leap off the bridge, and that Rafelson and the group would have continued to ride the gravy train to whatever bank it took them?
There is a creative tragedy about the Monkees, in that each of the band’s constituents has some talent—Jones was a Tony-nominated Broadway performer, Nesmith and Tork were working musicians, Dolenz had been acting since childhood—but, since they were forced together into a made-for-TV mold rather than growing organically, they were never able to realize their potential, either collectively or individually. That frustration is evident in Head, but the lads are making the best of it, and having fun with their own poor reputation. In the end, the Monkees were always Bob Rafelson’s plaything, to do with as he wished, and that included taking them apart when he had outgrown them. Every kid knows that some toys are more fun to smash than to play with according to the instructions.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a mind-blowing collage of intercuts and mixed media that moves along at a rapid pace with little sense of direction, a plotless script and a free-for-all freakout of rock music and psychedelic splash of color. It’s the Monkees’ first feature and aim is the young film fan that would rather experience a film than be entertained by it.“—Variety (contemporaneous)
“Deep? Maybe not, but certainly Head-ier stuff for our mop-topped TV stars, who riff on the Vietnam War and screen violence in weird slapstick sequences with self-reflexive angles… it’s a psychedelic Hellzapoppin’, a wild slice of self reflexive sixties surrealism with a savage satire of commercialism.“–Sean Axmaker, Parallax View (Criterion Collection set)
“…Bob Rafelson’s yes-it’s-really-as-weird-as-everyone-says 1968 debut feature… For a stream-of-consciousness, anti-structural exercise, it moves very quickly and is never not entertaining.”–Scott Nye, Battleship Pretension (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Head (1968)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Head (1968) – Articles – Background information, trivia and review excerpts assembled by Jeff Stafford for TCM.com
Head (Columbia Pictures, 1968) – A ton of information and promotional material from a Monkees fansite
Head (1968) – The Criterion Collection – Includes essays by J. Hoberman (on the entire BBS set) and Chuck Stephens (on Head in particular)
A Monkees ‘Head’ trip – A retrospective look at Head by Susan King of the Los Angeles Times, written for a 2008 revival
The Monkees’ Head: ‘Our fans couldn’t even see it’ – 2011 Guardian article on the film incorporating quotes from Dolenz, Jones, Tork and Bob Rafelson’s daughter
The Monkees in “Head” – interviews the author of “The Monkees, Head, and the 60s” (see Bibliography, below) for his movie podcast
HEAD (1968) – Alfred Eaker’s reflections on Head for this site
“The Monkees, Head, and the 60s” – The only book-length treatment of the movie, by Peter Mills, a former rock band singer and current Senior Lecturer in Media and Popular Culture
DVD INFO: Head on home video has always been a good news/bad news situation. First, the good news: Head is available from the Criterion Collection (buy), remastered, with a commentary track by the Monkees, an interview with director Rafelson, and a featurette on BBS, the studio that made the film and other counterculture classics. Now for the bad news: you can’t buy Crietrion’s Head alone, but only as part of the expensive “America Lost & Found: The BBS Story” set. But there’s more good news, because the other films you’re forced to purchase to get Head are all pretty much American classics: Easy Rider; Five Easy Pieces; Drive, He Said; A Safe Place; The Last Picture Show; and The King of Marvin Gardens.
More good news: the BBS set is available on Blu-ray (buy).
Even more good news: Head is available on a single disc release from Rhino (buy), although the bad news is you’ll have to pass on all those yummy special features in the Criterion edition. Even worse news is that the Rhino edition is presented in a cropped “full-frame” version (you know, “formatted to fit your TV,” back when “your TV” was a square instead of a rectangle). But if you’re looking for more good news, the Rhino disc has seven different alternate trailers and the option to skip to individual cameos or musical numbers.
Finally, there’s more good news on the horizon, in that Rhino will be re-releasing Head on Blu-ray (presumably in 2016, and presumably in the proper widescreen format, to fit your TV). This release will contain rarely seen outtakes from the film (which originally ran for almost two hours before being cut to its final form). The bad news is that, once again, it’s only available as part of an expensive set: a 10-disc set containing all the episodes of the TV series, with Head as the capper.
Pick according to your budget and needs. “Make you choice and we’ll rejoice/In never being free.“