50 Years Ago: The Monkees Jump to the Big Screen With ‘Head’
Released in theaters nationwide on Nov. 6, 1968, Head was the Monkees last real hurrah as a pop phenomenon of the '60s. If you want to talk about going out in a blaze of glory, look no further. After all, what other film has its stars jumping off a bridge to their watery death in the first five minutes?
In addition, the Monkees' name was not used in the offbeat advertising for the film, the movie itself had no credits at all until the very end, and the soundtrack generated zero radio hits. Some might call this a recipe for failure, while others might simply see it as the lunatics taking over the asylum.
The Monkees premiered on NBC in the fall of 1966, quickly making the Monkees world famous, and their records big hits. By 1968, many changes had taken place in and around the world of pop music and the effects were dramatic. Watch Season One of the Monkees TV show and you see a nice, tidy, offbeat comedy show. But the second season featured emerging chaos, surrealism and anti-establishment motifs, not to mention changes in style of both music and fashion. NBC then dropped the show from its roster, and the band decided to make a movie.
Written by Bob Rafelson (co-creator of the television show) and Jack Nicholson, fresh from his LSD-inspired film, The Trip, and produced by Rafelson and Bert Schneider, Head plays like a stream-of-consciousness psychedelic ramble. Where else do you get Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston, Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, Terri Garr and Jack Nicholson in the same movie?
The film was a colossal flop, reportedly recouping only about $16,000 of its $790,000 budget. The kids who saw it upon release certainly didn't understand everything that was going on -- they were just there to see their heroes. Meanwhile, the "heads" who might have really got what was going on, had no interest. "A lot of the hip people, the intelligentsia, wouldn't see the movie anyway, because it was the Monkees,” Mickey Dolenz told Vulture in 2010.
The four members of the Monkees worked with Schneider, Rafelson and Nicholson on ideas for the film. “We sat around all day long and part of the night talking about what we wanted to do, what we didn't want to do and what kind of a movie it would be,” Dolenz recalled. “At the end of the weekend, we ended up with hours of tape that Jack took away, and out of those conversations and the experiences we had hanging out, they came up with this movie.”
Watch Excerpts From the Monkees' 'Head'
"We didn't want to make a 90-minute version of the TV show," Dolenz told Rhino in 2010. "The movie is essentially about us being victims, always the victim of circumstance. It was about the whole zeitgeist, and deconstruction of, not only the Monkees, but also a lot to do with the deconstruction of Hollywood." The late Davy Jones, on the other hand, wasn't a fan of the film. "We were pawns in something we helped create but had no control over," he told the Guardian, adding, "They were throwing us to the 'gators at that point."
The film unravels as an acid-inspired satire, juxtaposing images of war, fame, and psychedelia, with a glorious soundtrack that includes musical contributions from Ry Cooder, Neil Young and Stephen Stills to name a few. The concert scene of the band performing the Mike Nesmith song "Circle Sky" is intercut with images of the horrors of war (including a famous Viet Cong execution scene) before the 'fans' rush the stage, tearing apart the band, who end up being only mannequins. The opening sequence featuring the beautiful "Porpoise Song" is still breathtaking stuff.
"You say we're manufactured / To that we all agree / So make your choice / And we'll rejoice / In never being free," the band sing in "Ditty Diego," which ends with the even-more cynical, "The money's in / We're made of tin / We're here to give you more." The Monkees were, in effect, killing off their public image right in front of their fans. It was truly an unprecedented and brave, if possibly naive, move. Nowadays, it would be hard to imagine anyone of their status rocking the boat and smashing their own mirror like this.
Head poked holes in the facade of the music industry, the film and television industries, politics and human nature, with the main target being the Monkees themselves. "I think it is one of the movies that really did capture the feeling and sensibility of the time," added Dolenz. Critics were left confused, and did not heap on praise. The New York Times wrote that it "might be a film to see if you have been smoking grass," while the Hollywood Reporter accused the film makers of "purposely seeking to evolve some detached commentary from seemingly confused material."
Both Nicholson and Rafelson were arrested at the New York premiere. In the Andrew Sandoval book The Monkees, Rafelson explained, "Jack is trying to slap a Head sticker on the helmet [of a police officer] and the cop turns around and Jack nails him on his face." The pair would go on to immense fame with their next project, Easy Rider.