Reelin’ & Rockin’ – The Monkees Sacrifice Their Image in the Psychedelic Freak-out ‘Head’

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It’s well known that The Monkees weren’t assembled like a regular band. Originally conceived as an idea for a television show by Bob Rafelson in 1962, the idea lay dormant until A Hard Day’s Night was released. The idea revived, the show was sold Screen Gems (part of Columbia Studios), and Don Kirshner, head of Screen Gems music department, was in charge of assembling the band and finding the right songs for the project. The show ran for 2 seasons, accumulating a grand total of 58 episodes. The four members of the band – Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork – found themselves in awkward situation. Their television show and records were successful, but they were looked down upon as artists.

In order to salvage any artistic credibility, the Monkees would have to destroy themselves, and they did exactly that with Head. Released a few months after the television show was canceled, Head was too weird for fans of the show and too square to capture the attention of the psychedelic subculture. Directed by Rafelson and co-written with, of all people, Jack Nicholson, the two would follow Head with Five Easy Pieces, which was nominated for 4 Academy Awards, coincidentally, 4 more than Head would receive. With Ditty Diego War Chant, penned by Rafelson and Nicholson, the writing duo has placed the carefully manicured image of the Monkees in their crosshairs. In the minute-long number, the group openly mocks their hollow, manufactured ways. The self-mockery ends with one of the most famous images from the Vietnam War, the execution of a Vietcong officer by Nguyễn Ngọc Loan. I know this may sound shocking, dear reader, but the Monkees don’t exactly have anything of substance to say about war. It’s all really boilerplate late-‘60s stuff. Then again, you could say that about everything in the movie – the lingo, the inverted psychedelic colors, the frantic editing.

 

What Head lacks in nuanced political messaging it more than makes up for with the music, some of the best the Monkees have ever made. Some songs were written by people who’d written for the Monkees before. The Porpoise Song was written by Carole King and Gerry Coffin, as they did for prior Monkees songs such as Pleasant Valley Sunday. Harry Nilsson wrote Daddy’s Song, which is presented with Davy Jones dancing with Toni Basil, who’d later find success singing the early MTV hit Mickey. Breaking from their reputation, members of the Monkees wrote original songs for the film. The blistering Circle Sky was penned by Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork wrote a couple songs including Can You Dig It.

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Head also features a number of odd cameos, all seemingly made sense to the drug-addled production team. Sports figures of the era like boxer Sonny Liston and football player Ray Nitschke appear in a few of the film’s many non sequiturs. Former teen queen Annette Funicello briefly appears, as does Teri Garr in her first speaking role. The Monkees appear as dandruff in the hair of Victor Mature, his character dubbed The Big Victor. There’s even a mini-reunion of The World’s Greatest Sinner. The one-time composer for Sinner, Frank Zappa, makes an appearance with a cow in tow. And the Sinner himself, Timothy Carey, is Mr. High ‘n’ Low, regularly popping up to terrorize the Monkees with talks of merchandising and threats of violence.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, there was a conscious decision to leave the Monkees out of any advertising for Head. Billboards and posters were made that just featured a picture of some guy. But not much about Head makes much sense. It’s not a great movie, but it’s certainly not bad. Yet it’s not impossible to why the film failed to catch on with audiences. The band and the production crew thought they were making high-comedy, which they kinda did in the fact that they were high. Head is just a bizarre portrait of its era, possibly a clearer portrait than Easy Rider. Despite all its merits, Head was a massive flop that killed the Monkees’ career.

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While not the greatest band of their era, the Monkees far exceed their reputation as a wholly manufactured band. They attempted to swim against the current of their manufactured ways and it destroyed their short term success but gave them long term credibility. The Monkees reunited here and there over the past few decades, and all the members were seemingly working on one project or another. For whatever modest success they found, they were always in the shadow of the Monkees. An interesting side note: Michael Nesmith would find success in early home video distribution, and would produce one of the great punk movies ever, Repo Man. Even though it killed the Monkees, Head is the Citizen Kane of psychedelic comedies featuring ‘60s television musicians.

 

 

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