“ Genre: Rock - Psychedelia / Artist: The Monkees / Theatrical Release Date: 1968 / DVD Release Date: 2004 „
Head is a surreal psychedelic 1968 musical film featuring The Monkees (Peter Tork, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith). It was a critical and commercial bomb when it was first released but is now regarded to be something of a cult film, maybe even a minor classic. Head was conceived by director Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson (who got the writing credit) and The Monkees and unfolds as a series of increasingly bonkers and unrelated vignettes and sometimes fantastic trippy musical sequences. Only a few years later Rafelson directed Five Easy Pieces and became a notable filmmaker and this alone had people scuttling back to Head to see what they might have missed the first time around. My favourite sequence in the film has Davy Jones in frock coat delivering an irresistibly enthusiastic rendition of Harry Nilsson's Daddy's Song in a room that looks like a huge empty art gallery. He dances with Tony Basil and the colour scheme (including clothes) keeps changing to dazzling effect through an extraordinary piece of editing. When Davy Jones finishes the song (quite poignant now of course when he sings the line "...and now the years have passed and so have I...") and wanders outside he meets Frank Zappa and a talking horse. Head is that sort of film. Bewildering, strange, sometimes a struggle, sometimes brilliant. There is no real plot besides the fact that The Monkees are trying to establish free will but keep realising they are puppets on a string, a mere commodity with no freedom. So they try to run riot and catapult through this surreal outlandish landscape, old sets from their television show, but always seem to end up as actors making a film. There is no point looking for a coherent story or any connection with reality (this is intentionally very, very, very far out) but they do riff on the manufactured nature of The Monkees and this aspect to the film is something I've always found interesting. The film seems aware that the height of their fame has passed and wonders if they are ever going to escape from being The Monkees. A sixties museum piece.
Head is much darker, more risque and much stranger than anything in the Monkees television series and was interpreted as an up yours to their fanbase and middle of the road commercial America. The fanbase from the television series was too young to get the film (and with some disturbing anti-war Vietnam imagery and the druggy counter culture atmosphere it really wasn't made for them) and the baffling spirit of the picture was hardly likely to win them too many new fans beyond those who already had a psychedelic bent or just a love of strange cinema. Despite the reading of Head as wanton career suicide, The Monkees knew it was already just about over for them anyway and didn't really care anymore. They just liked the idea of doing something more subversive, adult and self-aware. "Hey, hey, we are The Monkees, You know we love to please, A manufactured image, With no philosophies, 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 film starts superbly with The Monkees running riot on a bridge before they fall into the water in slow motion to the wonderful strains of Porpoise Song (a song written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King and the main theme of the film). The Monkees didn't write much of their own music but it never really mattered because the songs they were given or borrowed were often great.
This is definitely a film to watch late at night and has that compellingly weird late night early hours Koyaanisqatsi atmosphere. There are some dull patches and the film is an acquired taste but at 85 minutes you are never too far away from something diverting or wonderful - or even just strange. Micky Dolenz blowing up a coca cola machine in the desert with a tank or Sonny Liston making a cameo as a prospective boxing opponent for the diminutive Davy Jones. "Great, I'll have a go at him. You won't hurt my face, will ya? Million dollar head, this." I love the fact that Liston was in the film. Not only is he is a fascinating brooding presence but it somehow seemed fitting. Liston was overshadowed by Ali and The Monkees by The Beatles but they were both a part of the sixties too. The other musical sequence that stands out for me is Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? where Mike Nesmith is given a surprise birthday party that is so hippy sixties it makes Austin Powers look like an Ingmar Bergman film. He isn't too happy either after blankly taking in this psychedelic vista in bewildered fashion. "I don't like it, that's how it feels! I don't like surprises, I don't like all these people jumping around and shouting, wha - I don't even wanna HEAR what you're saying! Because you know what you're saying to me? You're saying "Happy Birthday" and you're jumping out of the walls and it's scaring me to death, and I'm supposed to be HAPPY about that."
The Monkees were conceived as an American Beatles with a Marx Brothers surrealist nonsensical attitude for the television series and they pointedly play on the roles the series defined for them. Dolenz is the whacky one, Davy Jones is the young one the girls like, Nesmith is the laconic deadpan leader, and Peter Tork is the stupid one. "You're right, Pete. You're always the dummy. I forgot. I'm sorry. Sorry. You're always the dummy, Pete. I'm sorry..." There is a frequent device where The Monkees find themselves inside a black box - a reference to the constrictive nature of their career where their personality and (especially) music was tightly controlled by the people that owned them as a property. This is also an in-joke as a space like this was actually constructed during the television series to give The Monkees somewhere to go to take a break. The alternative was them wandering off-set or annoying other actors in the environments of the studio. The film within a film structure was hardly new even then but it is interesting. We see them in jocular surreal scenes that could with one or two changes have come out of their television series and suddenly the veil is removed and we see the director and even Jack Nicholson talking to them as if it has all been a set.
There are some obtuse existential divertions that get a bit tiresome ("Psychologically speaking, the human mind, or brain or whatever, is almost incapable of distinguishing between the real and the vividly imagined experience. Sound and film and music and radio. Even these manipulative experiences are received more or less directly and uninterpretive by the mind. They are cataloged and recorded and either acted upon directly, or stored in the memory, or both. Now this process, unless we pay it tremendous attention, begins to separate us from the reality of the now. Am I being clear? For we must allow the reality of the now to just happen, as it happens. Observe and act with clarity. For where there is clarity, there is no choice. And were there is choice, there is misery. But then, why should I speak, since I know nothing?") but Head remains a likeable piece of sixties psychedelic that is worth watching at least once. Some knowledge of the history of The Monkees is probably required to get the most out of this and it won't be for all tastes but Head gets top marks for strangeness if nothing else. At the time of writing you can buy this for about £11 with some trailers thrown in as extras.