Head (1968)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Bob Rafelson

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In today’s 10-minute news cycle, it’s waaaay old news that Davy Jones, the British performer who gained everlasting fame as one of the members of TV’s pop music group The Monkees, died last week. Like many other people, I felt sad at the passing of a likeable member of a band who represented the era of my youth. I was the right age to watch The Monkees on NBC—and I did—and their truly great pop music was all over the radio. But try as I might, I can’t remember much of anything about the show, and my interest in it and The Monkees faded, whereas a TV contemporary, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In, is very easy for me to see in my mind’s eye. The Monkees was essentially a harmless kids show populated with cuddly pop icons parents felt comfortable letting their children idolize, and even back then, I already felt too old to really appreciate their charms.

Nonetheless, The Monkees were very popular, and a movie was sure to follow. Head proclaimed itself the “most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made (And that’s putting it mildly).” This boast, with the parenthetical phrase underlining it like a smear of cheap lipstick, kind of sums up what’s wrong with Head. The writing, a collaboration of all four Monkees (Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz), Rafelson, and coproducer Jack Nicholson, is confused and so far outside the image The Monkees created that the film’s quick failure was practically a foregone conclusion.

The film wants to be taken seriously as a statement from stars who do not wish to be confined to the G-rated TV group fans had come to know. It opens with the Monkees running from an angry horde during a bridge dedication and Micky escaping by jumping to his death off the bridge. This is followed by a spoken ditty in which the Monkees admit to being nothing more than a manufactured pop group as the frame fills up with TV screens and culminates with the infamous execution of a Viet Cong operative. Equally unexpected is a sequence in which famed San Francisco stripper Carol Doda plays a groupie who kisses each Monkee with ardor and then laughingly dismisses them all. So hit ’em with suicide, war, murder, and sex right at the start—and then it’s back to a film jam-packed with lovable hijinks that we have now been clued may have an underlying meaning.

As was typical of youth counterculture movies of the time, and The Monkees TV show specifically, a loose anarchy explodes on the screen full of non sequiturs and visual gags. The film pretends to break the fourth wall frequently, for example, when Micky is in a Western and a pioneer woman (Teri Garr) who has been bitten by a snake tells him to suck the venom from her finger. He ignores her and she “dies,” only to revive as the actress she is when he kicks her, quits the scene, and breaks through the cheap scenery. Later, a lavish birthday party sequence is cut short when Mike announces that he hates surprises and doesn’t want his birthday celebrated. His anger isn’t convincing, a reminder that only two of the Monkees had any acting experience before their show debuted and an Achilles heel in selling an artifice vs. reality premise for this movie.

Dolenz, the strongest actor and singer of the group, has perhaps the best scene in the film. After he has jumped off the bridge, he believably plays dead as he moves through the water, now solarized into many psychedelic colors. Mermaids come to his rescue, and the dreamy, trippy “The Porpoise Song” ushers in a visually intense and beautiful scene. I was reminded a bit of the profoundly moving De Profundis, which, for me, pays this part of the film a very high compliment indeed.

Peter’s hippy-dippy persona, a reflection of his early career as a folk singer, is pounded home as he visits with a guru in a steam bath who gives him the answer to the question of free will versus scripted reality the film plays with constantly. The guru has some interesting things to say about it not mattering if actions are predetermined if the actors can authentically live their lives within these actions, but this philosophy is undercut by the ridiculous setting and a final statement, “I know nothing,” that sounds like the kind of nonsensical conundrum people use to scoff at eastern philosophies. This scene takes aim at the Beatles in their quest for enlightenment, as well as their status as earthly gods to their more rabid fans. However, it’s also a bit confused, since Head seems to show The Monkees on a similar quest.

In a scene of great poignancy, Davy sings a sanitized, but still sad version of “Daddy’s Song,” written by Harry Nilsson, the man who turned down a chance to be a Beatle. Wearing an Edwardian-style suit, he performs the song on a dark, empty soundstage, a demonstration of his own personal history as a musical theatre star. When he emerges, Frank Zappa leading a steer stops to chat with him. He warns Davy not to be distracted from making his music, and then says he likes how Davy has been working on his dancing. This absurdist scene was probably included just to give Mike Nesmith’s buddy Zappa a cameo, but it does trivialize a rather moving scene.

Which leads me to wonder what exactly is going on here. Is Head a subversion of The Monkees’ personae and careers, or is it business as usual as a comedy-variety show? The hubby has explained that The Monkees wanted to be taken seriously as musicians and a legitimate band, to be allowed to grow past their prepubescent fan base. At the same time, it was that fan base who was going to go out to see Head. This film could have been a deliberate bomb designed to destroy their image and leave them free to have an adult career. The pointed moment when the boys all jump off the bridge and swim away to some kind of freedom is mitigated when the camera pulls back and shows them trapped in a tank of water being returned to its place in a warehouse. If The Monkees thought their fans would sympathize with their plight, they were not only mistaken, but cruel.

I’ve got a real problem with artists who blow a raspberry in children’s faces. There are many ways to move into independence and a mature career without disrespecting the children who have enjoyed and bolstered one’s early work. The fact that Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith, and Tork endure as The Monkees in people’s memories shows that they did their jobs very well and they chose the worst possible way to signal they were ready to evolve. Head can be as disrespectful as it likes to the Hollywood dream factory, which can take it and often deserves it. But by being truly angry with their fans, The Monkees guaranteed they would never find their way out of their self-made box, for how could we ever trust them again.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    4th/03/2012 to 3:35 pm

    I think they were creatures of the moment, right to the end of accepted Monkees lore, “Head”. and even beyond, and never really seemed to be able to move beyond that aspect, except for perhaps Nesmith. I remember a fair amount of bits and pieces of the show, which for network fare of the period, was beyond the pale by that measurement. Personally, I like “Head” for a lot of curious reasons, mostly in the details, but the real Monkees finale for me is the last TV episode, “The Frodis Caper”, a not for prime time ending in a lot of ways.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/03/2012 to 3:39 pm

    I read some criticism of the time that vehemently attacked them for not being a real band. This sense that there is only one way for musicians to form legitimately seems laughable, as well as a double standard when it comes to the artificial relationships that must be made every time a film production commences. But I do think this pretender dogged them out of the business, and in a later era, destroyed Milli Vanilli. It’s hard to comprehend now.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    4th/03/2012 to 3:43 pm

    As a side note, They gave Jimi Hendrix his first real tour break – they were transfixed by his talent, and regardless of screaming teeny-boppers, they wanted just to be around him. Hendrix wasn’t a big fan of corporate rock, but did the deal to get a toe in the door, and it worked. They parted ways amicably before the tour was over, and it’s of note Zappa went along with the idea of “Head” mostly because it really was a stick in the eye of a lot of conventional thinking.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    4th/03/2012 to 9:07 pm

    Yeah, this one was a mess as I recall. You are certainly right about Dolenz. While the Monkees were not quite the Archies of their generation, they had little substance and were fashionable for a generation. Of course those who maintain some fond memories will feel for the recent passing of Davy Jones. Your superb review puts everything here in the proper perspective, methinks.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/03/2012 to 9:50 pm

    Sam – The members of The Monkees were all talented, so I can’t agree there was little of substance there. I think their handlers were more responsible for the squandering of their potential with this misguided film. The Monkees could have been one of the great pop bands long term instead of imploding too soon.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    4th/03/2012 to 10:44 pm

    I saw Head theatrically a few years after the initial release, in NYC, a screening that was more likely inspired by the greater interest in Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. Columbia Pictures pulled the plug on anything resembling a national release back in late ’68, or I might have seen it sooner. As it was, the best parts were those you’ve cited of “The Porpoise Song” and “Daddy’s Song”.

  • chris schneider spoke:
    5th/03/2012 to 3:28 am

    I’ve been, shall we say, exposed to a fair amount of the Monkees TV show recently, and … one notices that there are names connected with it like Bob (then “Robert”) Rafelson and Bert Schneider and Larry Mazursky. One doesn’t look to it for psychological complexities, admittedly, but there’s still some artistic gamesmanship goin’ on. At least more than in “The Partridge Family,” which plays on the same TV station.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/03/2012 to 8:26 am

    Peter – I’m sure pulling the plug was damage control. This is not the movie the fans expected. Other planned Monkees films were also deep-sixed.

    Chris – It’s not a competition. The Monkees was a perfectly fine TV show that was always mildly satirical, and it was very successful. So was The Partridge Family.

  • Colin spoke:
    6th/03/2012 to 10:45 am

    Been a few years since I saw this but yes, it came into my head at the news of last week too. I won’t pretend to be crazy about it, or the band (couple of good tunes, Nesmith appealing) but still an unfortunate end to an iconic era.

  • Stacia spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 3:10 am

    My husband (an artist, ink and paint mostly) says there’s a mean streak in a lot of artists of any genre(s) in that many of them seek the approval of a public they have nothing but contempt for. It’s a sort of alpha behavior, attracting a large group of people and then picking and choosing who you think “gets” you or “deserves” your attention. I understand what he’s saying to an extent, more so now that I’ve dug into the lives of a few pop stars recently and seen it myself: Big stars who cater to a demographic they resent, sometimes even hate.

    I think The Monkees were acting that way to an extent with Head, resentful of the teenyboppers to the point they felt they had to do something extreme to get them to go away. (Neil Diamond, who wrote two of their biggest hits, has said several times in interviews that he hated that wasn’t taken seriously because he wrote songs for teenyboppers early in his career; if he had that kind of resentment, it’s likely The Monkees did, too.)

    I still have a fascination with Head. As you note, it’s sometimes unbelievably interesting and layered, then all of a sudden turns vapid and cheap. You never know what, if anything, these guys were thinking. Also, I’ll watch anything with Timothy Carey.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/03/2012 to 8:14 am

    Stacia – Interesting notion, and one that makes a lot of sense. They say comedians are very angry people, and that clearly seems true.

    The film has its moments. I remember liking it more the first time I saw it a year or two ago. This time around, I was remembered why I wasn’t a bigger fan of the TV show.

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    1st/04/2012 to 12:21 am

    I’ve been wanting to rewatch this movie ever since I learned a friend of mine was one of the voxpop people in the black-and-white soundbites section of the movie. My remembrances are similar to your review: some good sequences and some hodgepodge. The only time I saw it was way back in the day and my friends and I were higher than Jesus. We screamed over the Zappa cameo and the Monkees being vacuumed out of a giant Victor Mature’s hair, so I’ve been wondering if there was more subtext that I couldn’t take in as a callow youth. But after reading your essay, it seems like what I saw was what you get.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    1st/04/2012 to 9:07 am

    That vacuuming scene seems to have made quite an impression. That’s the one everyone has mentioned to me. The whole Victor Mature bit is a bizarrely appropriate send-up of Hollywood sword-and-sandal films that is pretty effective, if remembrance is anything to judge by.

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