Let us discuss The Monkees. When Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith, Davy Jones, and Micky Dolenz first plowed their way onto network TV in the Fall of 1966, no one considered them anything but a bunch of money-grubbing Beatle-clone dirtbags, posing as musicians. And nowadays, after their umpteenth 9000-city Take-the-Money-and-Run Comeback Tour, the Monkees (sans Michael, who didn't need the cash) are again earning their old reputation as no-talent bozos riding the coattails of the '60s resurgence.
But if you catch their old series, you realize that these four young hipsters were pretty adequate comedians, and if they weren't the greatest musicians, at least they had a lot of fun dispelling the rumors that they couldn't even play their own instruments. Their NBC television program was important for another reason -- in an era where PETTICOAT JUNCTION and MY THREE SONS purported to portray the typical American youngster, this show was truly DIFFERENT, with sensibilities forged by current teenage ideals and which parodied the mindless junk that saturated the airwaves. (In fact, Timothy Leary called their series "A mystic-magic show. A jolly Buddha laugh at hypocrisy.")
But enough of history, because we're on the verge of discussing their first (and only) feature film, HEAD, which is not only one of THE ultimate films of the late-1960s, but it's also one of my top five favorite motion pictures of all time.
In real life, The Monkees were getting fed up with their pop-idol status, and they decided to take the Big Step -- from their Emmy Award-winning series to the rigors of the feature film--and they came up with a giant fart into the face of their own commercialization; a free-form, full-circle vision of the Monkeemania phenomenon. Written by Jack Nicholson after spending several heavily 'medicated' days locked in a secluded hotel room in Ojai, California (with the four stars providing idea inspiration), Jack's final script utilizes the typical "wacky rock band and their adventures" format, then promptly takes off down a dozen different avenues at one time. Within a sharp satire of American media, HEAD analyses The Monkees' manufactured image and their television-molded personalities, while racking up high marks on the Surreal Meter.
Beginning with Micky's suicide attempt off a bridge, the film follows the Cathode-Ray quartet through a "typical" day -- dealing with rabid fans, dandruff commercials, Coke machines, giant roaches, fake arrows, drippy ice cream cones, and they even find time for a bit of music ("Porpoise Song", "Circle Sky", etc). A cohesive plot synopsis, you ask? Nonsense, because director Bob Rafelson (FIVE EAST PIECES) instead gives us a fragmented, dreamlike structure that slices up reality like a loaf of Wonder Bread, juxtaposing one situation upon another until the entire film turns into an acid-soaked hurly-burly of off-center comedy. There's singing, dancing, homages to old films, clips from old films, celebrity walk-ons (including the likes of Frank Zappa, Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, and Vito Scotti), self-satire, lots of druggy in-jokes, and constant unrelenting strangeness.
Despite all this, the public stayed away in droves. The Monkee teenyboppers (whom the film tended to ridicule) couldn't understand the flick, the psychedelic crowd (to whom the film was directed) wouldn't dare be caught at a (shudder) Monkees movie, and everyone was undeniable confused by the ad campaign (designed by a McLuhan-influenced associate professor of communications at Fordham) which had no mention of The Monkees, and instead consisted of a long close-up of John Brockman's head (who?). Or maybe it was a sign of the times, considering that Richard Nixon had been elected president of the United States only one day before the film's world premiere. A coincidence, or what? And what the hell does the title mean, you might wonder? Just check out the front leader of any feature film. HEAD.
I saw this film for the first time about 15 years ago. Since then I've sat through HEAD half a dozen times on the screen and another dozen times on video, and as far as I'm concerned, it's The Monkees' own 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY -- their YELLOW SUBMARINE -- their Gravity's Rainbow. Not just a good film, not just a weird film, this is one of the most cleverly-conceived masterworks of the LSD era. And would you believe me if I also said it was one of the few most cerebral and hallucinogenic movies ever made? All on a G-rating? Well, you'll just have to check it out for yourself, won't you?
"You say we're manufactured, to that we all agree,
So make your 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 Monkees' "War Chant."
© 1989 Steven Puchalski.