“Head” came not to praise The Monkees, but to bury them.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be in The Monkees more than anything. I remember that Nickelodeon had some contest where you could be “A Monkee for a day,” basically hanging out with the three Monkees who were talking at that point (I’m pretty sure it was Davy, Mickey, and Peter). I didn’t enter, but I was still pretty sure I should win anyway. I figured a bunch of 40-somethings would be so impressed with this eight-year-old that I would be invited to join the group, despite not having any musical talent.
I was a huge Monkees fan as a kid, constantly replaying a mix tape my dad had made for me, then their greatest hits tape. I watched their show on a regular basis. Like the great Dr. Zweig, I knew the Monkees were about rebellion, about political and social upheaval.
Film 14: “Head”
My excuse for not seeing it: My prime Monkees appreciating time was probably ages six through nine, which isn’t the appropriate audience for “Head.” Around the same time, I was also a huge fan of the Adam West Batman series, which also had a feature film. But the Batman feature was a natural extension of the TV show. “Head” was… weird. Just weird.
“Head” has some impressive pedigree. It was directed by Bob Rafelson, who went on to direct “Five Easy Pieces” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and the script was written by Jack Nicholson, who went on to be Jack freaking Nicholson.
It’s a good thing that Jack Nicholson had acting to fall back on because when it comes to screenwriting, he was no Jack Nicholson. “Head” isn’t so much a narrative as it is an excuse for the Monkees to do trippy stuff in loosely-strung together skits. Here’s a description of the writing process from The Guardian:
“Amid clouds of pot smoke, they talked all weekend with the tape recorder running. Nicholson then took the tapes and turned the conversations into a screenplay; according to Rafelson, he structured it while on LSD.”
Having watched “Head,” it seems to be a pretty accurate product of the above.
“Head” seems like The Monkees’ answer to “Help,” but way more out there. Multiple times in the first half hour the audience is subjected to footage of the execution of Nguyen Van Lem, alternating with footage of teenage girls screaming while The Monkees perform in concert. At one point, Peter Tork punches a woman. I don’t think Davy Jones has a line in the first half hour.
“It’s a kids movie. Kids aren’t going to dig it.” – Peter Tork, after punching that lady.
I’d love to see the script. Has it been published? I feel like Nicholson just typed “The Monkees smoke while sexy ladies dance all around them. Then I’m there with Dennis Hopper, for some reason. Also, we need Victor Mature to play a giant version of himself. COCCCAAIINNNNNEEEE!”
Which is not to say “Head” is bad. Wait, it’s an objectively bad film from a narrative perspective, but as a rock and roll movie, it’s got some good moments. In fact, I might rank it ahead of “Help,” in large part because Rafelson is a much better director than Richard Lester. The weirdness feels a bit more natural coming from a band that was willing to destroy their own image to pull it off. It’s like if N’Sync suddenly decided to star in “Natural Born Killers.”
Also, “Head” has “The Porpoise Song,” which I don’t think I was exposed to until I was in my 20s. It probably stands out as the best Monkees song and sets a trippy tone for the film to come.
Random thoughts: Early on a woman compares the kissing abilities of the band by kissing them all, one after the other. I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest kisser, but their mouths are way too open leading into the kiss. It was like a band of 6th graders at their first experience with “Seven Minutes in Heaven.” I know they say “Never meet your idols,” but just behind that should be “Never watch four of your idols awkwardly make out with the same woman.”
Mike and Mickey seemed to be the driving force of the film, with Davy Jones as the odd man out. He was underutilized and seemed largely isolated from the rest of the group. I wonder if it has anything to do with his Hermans Hermit’s-esque schtick not really mixing with the more surreal stuff the rest of the group was going for.
Movies it inspired me to check out: I’ve already seen “Five Easy Pieces,” and the rest of Rafelson’s filmography isn’t really calling to me. In terms of rock/music films, “The Harder They Come,” is on my list.
Also, special thanks to my friend Steve for watching this with me. The inspiration from this series of blogs came from a podcast I did with some friends that was abandoned after we recorded a single episode. The idea was we share a film that two of the three of us hadn’t seen. “Head” was on the list of potential films. Other than watching a few films with my wife, this has largely been a solo viewing experience. It was nice to have Steve there to watch this with and bounce some ideas off of.