A 'Head' of Its Time

In Head, a frighteningly original, career-defying work, The Monkees depict how they were forever trapped in a suffocating, inescapable situation.

Talk about biting the hand that consistently overfed you! By 1968, the manmade musical group known as The Monkees was angry. Their intensely popular TV series had just been cancelled, a lack of interest on both sides (that is, performers and programmers), leading to the Emmy winning sitcom’s demise. Ongoing battles with music producer (and overall artistic director) Don Kirschner were driving the band apart. Having struggled mightily to have any say in the songs or style of prefabricated bubblegum pop they (supposedly) crafted, their last few albums -- Headquarters, Pieces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones, Ld, and The Birds, The Bees and The Monkees -- had been an amalgamation of slick studio tracks and self-generated group stances. Yet no matter the material, the manufactured magic was disintegrating.

For Peter Tork (Greenwich Village folkie), Mike Nesmith (semi-successful musician), Micky Dolenz (former child star) and Davy Jones (UK music hall archetype), the past three years had been overwhelming and oppressive. Thanks to the combined efforts of people behind the camera, producers songwriters and sessions players in the studio, and the unending hormones of the still viable teen idol Tiger Beat fanbase, the boys had achieved their wildest dreams. They had gone from novelty act to pop culture icons. However, such skyrocketing success was creating two decided trails of afterburner consequences.

On the one side were those who felt the group could do no wrong, even when stories about their lack of instrumental skill (initially, The Monkees did not play on their own albums) suddenly swarmed the media. And then there were those who wanted to use their soulless plastic paradigm as a condemnation of the entire Establishment environ. This was the mid- to late-part of the ‘60s, mind you, a time when conventions were consistently cracking up. In The Monkees, many saw a mirror reflecting the continued struggle between the conservative and the counterculture, the free love and peace generation as demystified and marginalized by the entire white flight suburbanite powers in charge. It was a goofy game of cultural one-upmanship without any real rules. And the guys were tired of playing pawns.

The cancellation exacerbated everything. Then series producer / director Bob Rafelson got an idea. Since the entire Monkees ideal was based around The Beatles, and more specifically their classic ‘life on the road’ comedy A Hard Day’s Night, why not put the boys on film? Over the course of its last season, the TV series had indeed grown more experimental and innovative. So Rafelson, along with friend and collaborator Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), decided to expand on that notion and concocted a movie that would finally place The Monkees alongside the other noted artists of their era. Besides, without network constrictions, the boys could finally express opinions and ideas that the sponsors and suits would usually frown upon. Over some recreational pharmaceuticals and a wealth of pent up personal designs, a scattershot script was crafted.

Depending on who you believe, the title of this groundbreaking cinematic statement was either purposefully left blank (Columbia Pictures then taking the name from the “head” portion that begins each film reel), a swipe at the expense of the Beatles song and movie Help, or the foundation for a lewd lark (future efforts could therefore be heralded as “from the people who gave you Head”). Whatever the rationale, Rafelson, Nicholson, and the boys devised an existential expression of all the frustrations they experienced and the fallacies they unwittingly participated in. The entire film would function as a big screen swipe at everyone and everything that made them famous, from the fans to the phenomenon itself. It was a brash, ballsy move, and many thought they didn’t have the nerve to pull it off. After all, they were just a bunch of spoiled actors angry that the gravy train had finally pulled away from the station. They couldn’t single-handedly dismantle what an entire enterprise created, could they?

They could... and did. Head begins with the dedication of a bridge. As dignitaries and government luminaries gather to hear the speeches of stuffed shirt officials, we witness the Establishment in action, the powers that be acting as one would expect them to. Then the first unusual element creeps in. As he tries to begin his remarks, the straight-laced, balding bureaucrat can’t get the microphone to work. All we hear is high-pitched feedback. Yet when the police officer standing next to the devices tries it, everything is fine. This slightly comic back and forth continues until, finally, the sound system responds. Just as he’s about to finalize his comments and cut the ribbon, a set of sirens can be heard. Before we know it, The Monkees themselves have raced onto the scene, destroyed the ceremony, and are headed toward the structure’s edge.

At this point, the audience is rightfully perplexed. We don’t know who the band is running from, what the opening dedication has to do with the plot, or what is going to happen next. However, when Micky Dolenz climbs over the railing and looks at the perilous waters down below, there can only be one obvious inference: he’s going to jump. Indeed, within five minutes of the film starting, one of the group’s most recognizable members (the voice on many of their biggest hits, including “Last Train to Clarksville” and “I’m a Believer”), appears ready to commit suicide. It’s a bracing image; one we can’t picture Rafelson and Nicholson letting play out properly. After all, you can’t have your lead leap off a bridge at the beginning of your storyline. Where does the narrative go from there?

And then Dolenz jumps. The camera follows him as he begins his descent. A long shot shows something that vaguely looks like the actor tumbling down toward the water. It's intercut with other clips of the real life Monkee freefalling. Almost simultaneously, the epic strains of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s amazing opening theme “The Porpoise Song” begin to play. As the first line of lyrics waft through the organ and cello intro -- “My, my, the clock in the sky is pounding away/ and there’s so much to say...” -- we start to get the idea. This is an act of desperation, or purposeful ending, or much needed liberation. As he plunges toward his fate, Dolenz (who sings lead on the accompanying track) is delivering his own eulogy, challenging the audience to accept the obvious consequences.

The song barely half over, he finally hits the water, and it’s at this point where Head makes its first major break with reality. Instead of dying, or being injured, Dolenz simply floats in the suddenly psychedelic depths (Rafelson used colorizing techniques in post production to achieve the appropriate Electric Kool-Aid look). As the music continues, a school of mermaids arrive. They pick him up, carry him along the current, and by inference, away from whatever drove him to such self-destructive extremes. As the colors collide and the music builds, we settle in semi-recognition. Though it began rather oddly, Head seems to be saying something about the pressures of popularity and the desire to run away from it all.

It will be just the first salvo in what winds up a veritable deconstruction of the entire Monkees mythos. A simple dissolve later and we are on the TV series’ set. As the camera lingers, we watch a fetching young woman walk among the band. She kisses the boys, each embrace more sensual than the next. As she turns to leave, Mike Nesmith leaps to his feet and whispers something in her ear. Obviously dirty or suggestive, the girl looks over the scene. Her response? A rather dismissive giggle. Nesmith’s shocked reaction (girls don’t react to the band this way) is cut short as, perhaps, the most notorious aspect of the film, the “Ditty Diego -- War Chant”, begins. As individual miniaturized images from the film appear, one by one, in columns running left to right along the frame, the band begins a memorable, mocking derision of their own identity:

“Hey, hey, we are the Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies…”

That’s it. The gloves are off. If there is any doubt about Head’s designs, this goofy bit of belittlement accompanied by a noxious, off tempo piano vamp, is out to destroy The Monkees once and for all. The visual parade continues, a collage of pictures producing a kind of career overview. The sentiments get even stronger:

“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."

In an instant, the boys appear as cheerleaders, strutting the sidelines as they ask the massive crowd to respond to the following sly shout: “Give me a ‘W’. Give me an ‘A’. Give me an ‘R’. What’s that spell? ‘WAR’ What’s that spell? WAR!” As a montage of Vietnam stock footage -- including the notorious photograph of General Nguyen Ngoc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner -- is juxtaposed against a screaming throng of teenage girls as the white tuxedoed band prepares to take the stage. Gone are the well meaning misfits who struggled with slapstick infused storylines about catching a break in show business or winning the girl. In its place are four grown men, pissed off and opinionated, ready to reject and reconstruct everything that made them popular.

“As We Go Along” from Head

After the live version of “Circle Sky”, with clear playing by all four members of the group (acting as a response to those who would question their musicianship), we get into the real heart of Head. Selecting a stream of consciousness style for the movie’s main structure, the boys interact with icons both fictional (faceless filmmakers trying to get them to continue their usual shenanigans) and factual. Ray Nitschke is a football player making matters uncomfortable in a war torn foxhole. Annette Funicello is a typical ingénue pining for Davy Jones in a vignette where the diminutive Brit boxes former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston. A very young Teri Garr helps the group dismiss the non-PC cowboys and Indian ideal, as Victor Mature scowls around the edges as ‘The Big Victor’ -- a symbol of not only the music business (the nickname is an RCA reference), but of old fashioned moviemaking, as well.

In fact, most of Head is a direct confrontation of the contrivances used by The Monkees to sell themselves. Whether it was working within certain genre stereotypes (scarred horror victims, clueless crime lackeys), the differences between the TV band and the foursome in the movie are monumental. Each member gets a defining moment -- Micky trying to talk his way out of an altercation with a cop (and failing), Peter offering guidance toward some manner of transcendental enlightenment -- and there are obvious inside jokes scattered about (the boys have a hilarious back and forth with a drag queen waitress channeling a flawless Bette Davis). With its clear attacks on corporate commercialism (Coke gets it big time) and hard-edged peace and love approach (violence is always met with passive resistance) it’s clear that The Monkees see themselves as the vanguard of a new generation -- or at the very least, the catalyst to show the brainwashed teenyboppers a better way.

Of course, there is music interspersed among these adventures, and it’s here where Rafelson really earns his ‘inventor of MTV’ wings. For a gorgeous song like “As We Go Along”, the boys are seen simplified and symbolic, interacting with nature in wondrous, wide open vistas. It’s a stunningly beautiful number. The psychedelic drive of “Do I Have to Do This All Over Again” (a pounding Peter Tork original) is set inside a delirious drug-aided happening, while a harem situation with the boys as befuddled sheiks forms the erotic ridiculousness for “Can You Dig It?” The most revelatory sonic moment in all of Head, however, is not the capable concert footage or the whole earth experience. It’s Davy Jones’ solo spot for a brilliantly conceived and captured vaudeville romp, “Daddy’s Song”.

Composed by friend Harry Nilsson (the band had covered his “Cuddly Toy”), the premise of the piece is straightforward; a nattily outfitted Jones sings and dances against a contrasting backdrop. When he’s in white, the surrounding area is black, and visa versa. Along the way, an incredible young Toni Basil will join him to strut and fret in expertly choreographed routines. Sounds pretty uneventful, right? Well, it’s at the moment when you wonder what makes this sequence stand out that Rafelson rewrites the rule book. Having obviously filmed the number in opposing aesthetics -- black on white, white on black -- the director than carefully intercuts between the two, creating a striking, jaw dropping melding of the two. Within various angles, within various moves, Davy goes from black suit and white shirt to the exact opposite, the editing flawless keeping in time with the beat and the dance step. While it’s rather difficult to describe, it is astonishing to watch. And remember, this in 1967 -- there are no motion control cameras or CGI stunts. Just an original vision meticulously crafted by a true artist.

“Daddy’s Song” from Head

The end takes us back to the beginning. We learn that the group is running from an angry mob, furious that they won’t conform to the norms of society. As they come upon the dedication, they decide to leap off the bridge, a last act of defiance meant to unshackle them from the public grasp once and for all. As “The Porpoise Song” syncs up again, all four members now jump. We see them freefall, the editing once again showing us bodies in uninhibited action. As they hit the water, we remember the opening sequence, and wait for the mermaids to arrive. But what we see instead is struggling. The boys bob and dive, looking for their possible exit. Soon, the psychedelic colors fade away, and we recognize the predicament they are in. Trapped in an oversized aquarium, they are towed back to the studio, Mature sitting smugly in a director’s chair behind them.

Even today, the message remains clear: The Monkees would be forever trapped in a suffocating, inescapable situation. To break from their past would mean a kind of career suicide, while staying within it would be equally deadly. Frozen, floating, between what they were and what they could be, the band appeared to place its fate in the hands of fans. You decide where we go next, they challenged, tell us what you want. The miserable box office returns for the film seemed to signal the answer. The reasons for the failure of Head have been debated by devotees, critics, and movie buffs for decades. It’s a frighteningly original work -- the Fab Four wouldn’t be caught dead doing something like this -- and it really took a great deal of guts to undermine their image so. Still, it’s also incredibly self indulgent and purposefully oblique, daring the audience to accept and understand it. Unlike other ‘60s artifacts that spell out their intentions in big broad pronouncements, Head remains the ultimate counterculture experience. It not only defies standard conventions, it rebels against them all.

With its failure, The Monkees were officially done. After creating a couple more albums and an equally bizarre network special (1969’s 33&1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee) Peter Tork finally left, followed quickly by Michael Nesmith. The breakup of The Beatles soon overshadowed everything else, and it wasn’t long before reruns of the group’s groundbreaking sitcom were shuttled off to Saturday mornings as kid vid fodder. Head was given an occasional late show screening, but for the most part, it became a forgotten facet of an equally scorned band. Even DVD has failed to resurrect it, the only version available being Rhino’s ridiculous full frame release (cropping away much of Rafelson’s compositions). The Monkees main creative force would go on to make Five Easy Pieces with pal Nicholson, setting the standard for much of the thoughtful ’70s cinema to come. But as a closing confirmation of everything the previous decade had stood for, pro and con, Head stays a misunderstood masterwork, one that’s significance only increases with time.

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