Head is many things. The Monkees’ declaration of independence, a psychedelic beanfeast, a wackadoo retread of Help by the Prefab Four, director Bob Rafelson’s big screen debut and one of Jack Nicholson’s rare writerly contributions to the movies to list just a few.
What it isn’t is a good film. Tiresome in the extreme, it wears out its welcome very quickly. If it wasn’t for the fact that the Monkees are an extremely likeable foursome, it would be barely watchable at all.
But there is something to be squeezed from it, and it’s not just the chance to see cameos by Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston, Victore Mature, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson himself (in fetching white flat cap and bright shirt looking every inch the late 1960s hipster dude).
The Monkees at the time were riding high on the success of their TV show. But the show hadn’t been built around the band; instead the band was built around the show. The Monkees were a boy band created as a consumerist version of The Beatles. No musical skill required, just a bit of chemistry and a cute face. Some of the band knew this going in and accepted it. Mickey Dolenz, for example, was a seasoned TV professional, having played Circus Boy on TV as a kid, and knew exactly what the deal was, whereas Mike Nesmith, who was already a singer-songwriter when he answered the call, was genuinely taken aback when asked to mime while “proper” musicians did the actual playing.
Consumerism sat badly with the increasingly counter-cultural late 1960s and while the band was hugely successful with screaming teens, they weren’t cool. Addressing both aspects of the Monkees’ dissatisfaction with the TV show, Head sees the band singing their own songs and playing their own instruments. “You say we’re manufactured, on that we all agree” the band chant in a snatch of an early song, in an attempt to head their critics off at the pass. Manufactured being a bad thing, obviously, hence the digs throughout at Capitalism Inc. in the shape of the Ford motor company and Coca-Cola.
With more than a hint of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In about it, and aping its loose, set-em-up-knock-em-down format, the film is constructed as a mad satirical dash through various scenarios – a harem, a high tech office, the Old West, a diner, a church, a nightclub, a war movie in the desert, the opening of a bridge by a local dignitary, each generic scene being upended as one or all of the Monkees do something wacky. There’s a deliberate flouting of convention going on. No opening credits, for example. And the breaking of the fourth wall, which starts early on and continues with leaden regularity right up to the end credits. Apparently the script was brainstormed by the Monkees, Rafelson and Nicholson, aided by a big bag of marijuana, and was then written up by Nicholson, with a psychedelic assist.
The best bits of the film are the psychedelics, in fact. At one point Dolenz is underwater swimming with mermaids. At another the whole band are in a nightclub and the deeply saturated colours of the visuals are spectacularly wild, the epitome of what you expect 1960s psychedelia to be, but rarely is.
Through it all the band remain as their screen personas always were – the cute Davy Jones, zany Mickey Dolenz, dumb Peter Tork and laconic Mike Nesmith.
The film bombed, satisfying neither the teenies nor the older crowd the Monkees were courting, but it did pave the way for Rafelson’s movie career – Five Easy Pieces came two years later and The King of Marvin Gardens (both starring Nicholson) two years after that.
With a background in producing and writing, Rafelson was already 34 when Head was made. Jack Nicholson was 31. Maybe that’s what’s ultimately wrong with the film. The guys making it were too old. They come to 1960s counterculture not as participants but as consumers. “Never trust anyone over 30” as the old hippie slogan has it. For all its insistence that it isn’t, the entire thing is a work of consumerist pastiche, just like the TV show was, right down to the “authentic” songs – Beatles knock-off meets early Pink Floyd.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022