HEAD (1968)

Head (1968) is the quintessential cinematic oxymoron: a “G” rated LSD trip, starring The Monkees, with cameos by Victor Mature, Anette Funicello, Teri Garr, and ! Written by  and directed by Bob Rafelson, Head has the reputation of killing the career of The Monkees. Actually, their short-lived television series had already been cancelled after the end of its second season. A manufactured-for-prime-time pop band, The Monkees were, of course, the first prefab phenomenon; a second-rate ripoff of , sponsored by Kelloggs. The brevity of their career was utterly predictable. Despite that, and despite being clearly modeled after ‘s A Hard Day’s Night (1964), “The Monkees” TV series (Rafelson was part of the creative team) had fleeting moments of innovative satire and surrealism. The script for Head was reportedly conceived one night when Rafelson, Nicholson and the Monkees were tripping on acid. With the Monkees fad already in its death throes, the creative team plunged into producing the group’s first and only feature as an experimental opus depicting the suicide of Peter, Michael, Davy, and Micky. The result was an epic bomb. Most critics hated it, as did its potential audience. Fans of the boy band were outraged at the sacrilegious nature of the film, while the hippie culture avoided anything with the Monkees name attached. Yet despite all odds, Head became a cult favorite in many circles. Evidence of that may be found in Rhino Records decision to release the film on DVD. With Rhino’s reputation as the Criterion Collection of bizarre and obscure cinema, television and music, that amounts to something approaching canonization.

Mickey’s dive off a bridge sets the opening tone of a spherical immolation. Admirably, the Monkees do not attempt to make a big screen version of the TV show, rather they deconstruct it through a series of random, nonsensical misadventures arising from their attempt to escape their “box.” Their War Chant serves as an apt theme:

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees,
You know we love to please.
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.

We hope you like our story
Although there isn’t one;
That is to say there’s many
That way there is more fun.

Still from Head (1968)You told us you like action,
And games of many kinds.
You like to dance, we like to sing
So let’s all lose our minds.

We know it doesn’t matter
‘Cause what you came to see
Is what we’d love to give you
And give it one, two, three.

But there may come three, two, one, two,
Or jump from nine to five,
And when you see the end in sight
The beginning may arrive.

For those who look for meaning
And form as they do facts,
We might tell you one thing
But we’d only take it back.

Not back like in a box back,
Not back like in a race,
Not back so we can keep it,
But back in time and space.

You say we’re manufactured,
To that we all agree.
So make you choice and we’ll rejoice
In never being free.

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees,
We’ve said it all before.
The money’s in, we’re made of tin,
We’re here to give you more.

The money’s in we’re made of tin
We’re here to give you...

After swimming with the mermaids, the Monkees attempt to break through every wall, only to be insulted by everyone from Frank Zappa and his cow (‘You’re too white for me”) to television exec Victor Mature attempting to keep them in their box (think a non-narrative Truman Show-1998). In response to a white trash waitress’ assertion that they are “God’s gift to eight-year-olds,” the Monkees set out to do everything but entertain us. Rather, they disturb us, assault our senses, and take us with them through Mickey’s angst-ridden frustrations on a Coke machine, dandruff commercials, the dismantling of a cardboard western set, and a non-Billboard pop tune (‘The Porpoise Song”). The Monkees get lost, found, beaten to a pulp, consult a swami, get lost again, found again, and end where they begin: reiterating their suicide. The Monkees are sick of Monkeemania, their fans, and themselves (particularly Nesmith), and they want us to be sick of them too. They succeed, through the sheer honesty of their travels.

The Monkees put their money where their mouth is, purposefully not even mentioning themselves in the original ad campaigns. Some have compared Head to the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967) and Yellow Submarine (1968). Yet, Head, this stream-of-conscious oddity featuring a synthetic pop band, manages, against all odds, to be one of the best counterculture films of the late 1960s, surpassing most of the films by the original Fab Four. Amazing, but true!

3 thoughts on “HEAD (1968)”

  1. “…Rhino’s reputation as the Criterion Collection of bizarre and obscure cinema, television and music…”

    Kind of a strange thing to say, especially since HEAD is NOW part of the Criterion Collection (part of a boxset, AMERICA LOST AND FOUND: THE BBS STORY), which blows the Rhino release out of the water.

  2. This splendidly entertaining chaotic mess is probably unique, since I can’t imagine a major record company or movie studio today letting a manufactured boy- or girl-band sufficiently far off the leash to make a film anything like this! Which is a pity, because I’d have liked to see a remake of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” starring the Spice Girls.

    It’s not great art, because the Monkees aren’t great actors, and people on acid seldom write great movie scripts. But it’s astonishing how hard they put the boot into their own image! Apart from the opening and closing scenes in which they jump off a bridge and seemingly die, there’s the scene in which screaming teenage girls storm the stage and literally tear their idols to pieces, revealing the Monkees to be plastic dummies.

    Not to mention the scene in which one of them (I can never remember which is which) sings an incredibly annoying anachronistic vaudeville song accompanied by tap-dancing, and is then told straight up what a piece of crap it was by Frank Zappa (with that cow). It plays out exactly as if a deliberately bad song, performed perfectly straight, was inserted in order to trick uncritical fans into thinking they were enjoying it, followed by an enlightening Zen slap in the face.

    But its biggest strength is that, unlike nearly all sixties counter-culture exploitation movies, such as those directed by Roger Corman (most of which also prominently involved Jack Nicholson, so perhaps “Head” was his attempt to show Corman what kind of hippy-trippy movie he wanted to star in), it has no moral whatsoever, except perhaps “You’d be surprised how much it sucks to be the Monkees”. Which is a lot less preachy and more fun than “People who take drugs seem to be having a good time, but ultimately it all goes wrong and they die. So just say no, kids!”

    And in fact, although it does appear that perhaps the Monkees die at the end, if we take the opening scene literally, then not only does Mickey Dolenz jump off the same bridge twice and survive at least once, but the first time, instead of dying, he ends up rapturously swimming with psychedelic mermaids.

    People with good eyesight can amuse themselves trying to spot Jack Nicholson’s unscripted and uncredited micro-cameo when he wanders on during a crowd-scene.

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