Rockin’ in the Film World #12: The Monkees in HEAD (Columbia 1968)

The Monkees (Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, and Mike Nesmith) brought rock’n’roll to TV with their mega-successful 1966-68 musical sitcom. Inspired by The Beatles’ onscreen antics in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and HELP!, producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider cast four fresh-faced youths (Jones was a Tony nominee for OLIVER!, Dolenz had starred in TV’s CIRCUS BOY, Tork and Nesmith were vets of the folk-rock scene), hired some of the era’s top songwriters (Gerry Goffin & Carole King, Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart, Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson) and session musicians (Hal Blaine, James Burton, Glen Campbell  , Carol Kaye), and Monkeemania became a full-fledged teenybop pop phenomenon.

Detractors (and there were many) in the music biz called them ‘The Pre-Fab Four’, looking down their noses at The Monkees while looking up as hits like “I’m a Believer”, “Daydream Believer”, and “Pleasant Valley Sunday” climbed to the top of the charts. But like all fads, Monkeemania quickly died out, and NBC cancelled the show in 1968. Rafelson, Schneider, and the group (who by this time were writing and playing their own music) decided an image makeover was needed, and together with co-screenwriter Jack Nicholson (yes, THAT Jack Nicholson) concocted the psychedelic, surrealistic feature film HEAD.

The movie is a completely plotless, colorful swirl of imagery, blackout skits, and satire focusing on The Monkees’ attempt to be taken seriously. To try and describe this mélange of trippy 60’s bizarreness would be pointless, which features everything from clips of film classics (Bela Lugosi in THE BLACK CAT, Rita Hayworth in GILDA ), footage of Monkee concerts and the Vietnam War, spoofs of movie genres (westerns, boxing epics, war films, musicals, science fiction, AIP/Poe horrors), guest stars ( Victor Mature , Annette Funicello , Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Tor Johnson , and a totally insane Timothy Carey !), and songs. Yet somehow, it all works as an entertaining piece of LSD-inspired lunacy that may be jarring to some but is never boring!

Despite this stab at something different, HEAD totally tanked at the box office. The Monkees’ teenybopper fan base didn’t know what to make of it, and the older hippies wouldn’t give them the time of day. As for the adults… fuggetaboutit!! The Monkees gradually disbanded, only to reunite decades later after the ironic crowd rediscovered them via reruns on Nickelodeon and MTV (which Nesmith had a hand in creating). Davy Jones died in 2012 and Nesmith’s now too rich to care, but Dolenz and Tork still carry the Monkee torch, touring as recently as 2016 for the group’s 50th anniversary.

As for the producers, each went on to success. Schneider won an Oscar for the 1974 documentary HEARTS AND MINDS, while Rafelson directed films like FIVE EASY PIECES (1970), STAY HUNGRY (1976), THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1981), BLACK WIDOW (1987), and BLOOD AND WINE (1996). That guy Nicholson did okay for himself, too! HEAD is truly too unconventional for words, but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by it, especially if you’re a classic film fan. Just turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream… oops, sorry, wrong band!

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