My sister got me a DVD of Head (1968) for my birthday. I’d seen bits and pieces of it once, but I’d never watched the whole thing until tonight.
“Head,” of course, stars The Monkees — Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith. It came out right after the cancellation of their TV series. It was directed by Bob Rafaelson and co-written by Rafaelson and Jack Nicholson – yes, that Jack Nicholson – right before the two of them went on to make “Easy Rider.” (Rafaelson, in fact, had been an executive producer of the Monkees’ TV show, and directed some of its episodes.)
The Monkees were, of course, not the type of organic band that comes together in high school or college. They were cast, by TV and music executives, as characters on a TV show, to be TV’s answer to the Beatles. But the Monkees weren’t satisfied with just being TV characters. They were discouraged at first that they had no control over their music, but they pushed for and eventually got that kind of control. You can’t blame the Monkees for having been cast; they at least had musical talent, and the ambition of being something more than an assembly line product. Even John Lennon defended them in an interview:
“They’ve got their own scene, and I won’t send them down for it. You try a weekly television show and see if you can manage one half as good!”
The TV show “The Monkees” is family-friendly – so much so that reruns of it ran several times on Saturday morning TV back when the networks put children’s programming on Saturday mornings. (Kids, ask your parents.) The TV show owes a lot to the Beatles’ movie “A Hard Day’s Night,” with a little bit of the rebellion toned down and a little bit of slapstick thrown in. The musical numbers from both “A Hard Day’s Night” and “The Monkees” set a template that would be followed by music videos a dozen years later, and Michael Nesmith, working as a director in the period around 1980, is considered one of the innovators of the music video format. It was a proof-of-concept show he produced for Time-Warner Cable which led to the creation of MTV.
“Head,” which came out about the time that the Monkees’ TV show had been cancelled, and at a time when conventional wisdom cast doubt on the band’s future, is more psychedelic than “The Monkees.” There’s no real story – just a series of bits and pieces, jumping here and there, to and fro, with musical numbers mixed in.
It was a failure at the time, but I found it to be a lot of fun – and there’s some fun meta-commentary about the Monkees’ own struggles to break out of the box in which they’d been put. Toward the end of the movie, they’re literally trapped in a box. They’re also battling a Jolly Green Giant-sized version of actor Victor Mature, and at least one critic has pointed out that this is probably a not-so-subtle jab at RCA Victor, the Monkees’ record label. (RCA had also been their TV employer, since it was the parent company of NBC.)
If anything, “Head” reminds me less of a Beatles movie than it does of two other bits of psychedelia I’ve seen from that same time frame: Skidoo (1968) and Good Times (1967). “Skidoo” is Otto Preminger’s attempt to make a drug culture movie, and it has a bizarre cast including Jackie Gleason, Groucho Marx, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Burgess Meredith and Cesar Romero. Skidoo attempts a plot, but just barely.
“Good Times,” not to be confused with the 1970s sitcom starring Jimmie Walker, John Amos and Esther Rolle, stars Sonny and Cher. It’s not very good as a movie but it’s a lot of fun if you think of it as a variety show – or maybe just a series of music videos. The plot, which is really just a framing device, is that Sonny has signed himself and Cher, playing fictionalized versions of themselves, to a movie contract with a powerful and vaguely-sinister studio executive (George Sanders). Cher is skeptical about the idea, but Sonny tries to convince her by brainstorming possible ideas for a movie, which turn into fantasy sequences built around musical numbers. There’s a western, a Tarzan movie, and so on.
“Skidoo” is one of those things you have to see once just for the novelty of it, but it’s not really a very good movie per se. “Good Times” isn’t a very good movie either, but I’ve watched it more than once just because the musical numbers are so great, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
“Head” seems like it’s in the same vein as “Skidoo” and “Good Times,” but it ends up being quite a bit better than either of them – maybe because it was trying, not just to pander to what producers imagined the youth demographic wanted, but to make a statement. The Monkees may or may not have hoped that it would be taken seriously as a work of art, but in any case it was a statement of defiance, an attempt to show that they were something more than sitcom characters.