The Monkees Tried To Cut Their Strings With 'Head'
I don't think, as a teenage fangirl, that I realized exactly how bitter, how cynical, how teeth-grittingly furious the Monkees' 1968 movie Head is. How it starts with — more or less — a suicide: Micky Dolenz running in a panic through a municipal ribbon-cutting ceremony and taking a leap off of a shiny new suspension bridge, tumbling through the air and crashing into the water to the stately chords of "Porpoise Song" while the rest of the band watches in consternation from the railing. How it ends the same way, except this time it's all four of them jumping. How the Gerry Goffin-penned lyrics that play over both scenes go "a face, a voice/an overdub has no choice, an image cannot rejoice."
Audiences at the time didn't exactly get what was going on, either. While we've been spending this year exploring the lasting cultural legacies of 1968, today I'd like to finish out the year by introducing you to a film that surfaced briefly and then sank like a costumed dummy falling into a California canal.
To set the scene: By November of 1968, when Head was released, the Monkees were pretty much over. Singer-songwriter authenticity was the new thing, and everyone knew the Prefab Four didn't play their own instruments or write their own songs (or at least, they hadn't originally). The last episode of their Emmy-winning show had aired that March, and in a year that held so much horror — the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, chaos in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam — no one really had, errr, headspace for a formerly popular and now faintly embarrassing pop phenomenon.
The Monkees themselves knew it — even though they had famously wrested creative control of their music away from the show's original musical director and begun playing their own instruments on their own compositions. (Mike Nesmith once asked John Lennon if he thought the Monkees were just a ripoff of the Beatles. "I think you're the greatest comic talents since the Marx Brothers," Lennon reportedly replied.)
What to do? Make a movie. A scathing, twisted, technically advanced stream-of-consciousness movie that would blow their plastic-fantastic image to bits and — with luck — launch them towards critical respectability. Producer and director Bob Rafelson had originally come up with the idea of a TV show about a wacky boy band and had been thinking about making a movie even while the show was still in production. To that end, he introduced the four Monkees to a friend of his, a then-struggling actor and screenwriter named Jack Nicholson. Over the course of a pot-fogged weekend at a California resort, Rafelson, Nicholson and the Monkees dictated what would become the script into a tape recorder.
I'm using the term "script" loosely. Head is a series of linked vignettes, more in the anarchic, fourth-wall-demolishing spirit of Looney Tunes or old silent movies than anything else that hit theaters that year. After the solarized psychedelicism of the opening sequence, it hits you with a blast of bile: Micky, Mike, Peter and Davy chanting "Hey hey we are the Monkees, you know we like to please/A manufactured image, with no philosophies!" over a series of TV screens playing first clips from the film, and then the infamous footage of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong fighter with a bullet to the head — then cutting directly to a shot of a screaming teenager at a Monkees concert. Subtle, it is not.
From there the four Monkees wander through a pastiche of Old Hollywood cliches — war movies, Westerns, the mean streets of Manhattan, a rigged boxing match — breaking through painted backdrops and keeping up a running deadpan monologue about how fake it all is. There's a truly frightening recurring villain, a ghastly surprise party, steam-room philosophy and a cavalcade of celebrity cameos: Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Annette Funicello, Victor Mature (at one point, the boys are reduced to playing flakes of dandruff on his gigantic head). Micky blows up a recalcitrant Coke machine with a tank. Peter, gentle Peter, punches a salty diner waitress — and then worries that the kids won't dig it because it doesn't fit his image. "You think they call us plastic now, babe," Mike tells an empty room, "but you wait 'til I get through telling 'em how we do it." Davy does a spectacular dance with Toni Basil to the heartbreaking "Daddy's Song." There are recurring montages of old movies, bra and car commercials, news clips, and over and over again, that Vietnamese execution footage.
The band is constantly being chased, attacked, torn apart, caged, sucked up in a giant vacuum and imprisoned in a big black box that reappears throughout the movie. They can't escape — not with philosophy, not with force. They never escape. They all jump off the bridge eventually, but while Micky swam off with beautiful solarized mermaids to start the film, by the end, the camera pulls back and the glorious colors fade away to show the four Monkees trapped in a tank on the back of a flatbed truck, beating frantically against the glass walls as the truck pulls away. It is desperately sad, which was completely lost on teenage me.
It was also completely lost on audiences in 1968. The Monkees themselves barely appeared in the film's purposefully postmodern marketing — which alienated their original fanbase and failed to lure in a more mature audience. Critics at the time trashed it — the New Yorker's Pauline Kael snarled that "the doubling up of greed and pretentions to depth is enough to make even a pinhead walk out." It made a whopping $16,000 back on its original $750,000 budget.
But while Head bombed on release, it's become a cult hit; critic Chuck Stephens, writing for the Criterion Collection, calls it "arguably the most authentically psychedelic film made in 1960s Hollywood," and "a masterpiece of formalist irreverence and psych-out satire."
Without particularly meaning to be, and without resorting to cliches about acid or flower power, Head is an almost perfect snapshot of the state of the counter-culture in 1968. Angry, questioning, willing to tear down the old niceties to make way for something more complicated, sitting uneasily in the doorway to a darker world.
And you could kind of make a case for it as an early sign that something new was happening in Hollywood — while Head was a flop, Rafelson and his producing partner Bert Schneider used their Monkees money to make a series of classic films, starting with Easy Rider the next year. (Supposedly, Head got its name because Rafelson and Schneider wanted to bill whatever they made next as being "from the guys who gave you Head." Ha, ha.)
More than that, though, it's just a good movie — five decades haven't dulled its anger, its color, its sadness, its blazing weirdness. You can't find it (at least, officially) on any streaming services right now, but it's around in multiple DVD reissues. Go find it. Watch it. Make your choice, and they'll rejoice in never being free.
Correction Dec. 31, 2018
An earlier version of this story identified Carole King as the lyricist on "Porpoise Song." It was actually her partner Gerry Goffin who wrote the lyrics; King wrote the melody. Also, an earlier version of this story misspelled one Monkee's first name. It is Micky Dolenz, not Mickey.