Head (1968)

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Directed by Rob Rafelson, written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, produced by Rafelson, Nicholson and Bert Schneider

By 1967, the bright spark that made The Monkees and their lovable antics so appealing and exciting to its young audience had begun to fade. The colossal, frantic success that the show had enjoyed in 1966 was increasingly undermined by creative tensions, and as the Prefab Four themselves gained more artistic control, they alienated their pre-teen viewers with their darker take on their phenomenon. By the end of season two, its producers decided it was time to slaughter this experiment that had spiralled out of control – but the group did it in the most spectacular way imaginable. Head is the embodiment of the complete deconstruction of its stars Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork; it is the disembowelment of an overgrown great ape on acid.

The inception of Head‘s concept and its radical ideas has reached somewhat mythical status, the image of Jack Nicholson and co cooped up in a cabin in the woods for days on end, living off marijuana, in a banishment with the purpose of brainstorming ideas for a film, is too tantalising to shake – especially considering that the supposed tapes that were recorded over the course of the weekend have never seen the light of day. Perhaps more than any other movie, Head is a product of its time, and at the same time, it is a complete reaction against it – it is a film that could have only existed in its time and place, within all its layered contexts, but that can only begin to be understood with the gift of time.

The film’s structure is wacky. The film is an array of sketches and scenes, with the occasional song, often nonsensical in nature, not tied together by anything tangible. It is essentially an experimental film, where its creatives had free reign to do as they pleased – to their detriment. But for the Monkees, they knew this was the end, and they were completely on board. The opening moments speak to this point vividly – each Monkee is seen leaping off a bridge in slow motion, falling forever, to the musical backdrop of Carole King’s sublime “Porpoise Song (Theme From Head)“. It is confrontingly suicidal – this scene is the beginning of the very end.

Wanting to feel, to know what is real
Living is a… is a lie
The porpoise is waiting, goodbye, goodbye

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye

What follows the existential, psychedelic opening, with inverted pop-art colours and swimming sirens, is a pop group demolishing their own image. After the mermaids whisk Micky Dolenz away, the camera cleverly returns to the famous interior set of the Monkees’ home, looking through a fish tank. Then, each of the Monkees is erotically kissed by a beautiful young woman, dismantling their collectively sexless man-child images carefully curated by their show’s executives. Then, a jingle plays over a collage of TV screens depicting various scenes from the movie. The jingle summarises the state of mind that the group were in regarding their own image and their cynical view of their success, with lyrics like:

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees, you know we love to please
a manufactured image with no philosophies…
You say we’re manufactured, to that we all agree
so make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free

Cutting off the last line of the jingle is a brutal image that quickly takes over all the TV screens. It is the famous Saigon execution footage, complete with a deafeningly loud gunshot sound, jolting the viewer into this strange new world of subversive absurdity, self-reflection, and social commentary in a vital moment in history. The Saigon footage, and similar such violent images of War atrocities, reappear in the film soon after. As the Monkees, all clad in white, take the stage for a live concert rendition of the Nesmith-penned “Circle Sky”, shots of screaming fans are intercut with Vietnam footage; black-and-white shots of mothers and children openly weeping are intercut with psychedelic double-exposure footage of the band performing. The Monkees themselves do not exude any joy as they perform, as other bands would. It is a confronting, deeply fascinating sequence. Their contempt with themselves is bitterly portrayed, but the shocking sequence speaks to something greater than themselves, too.

Among the collection of notable cameo appearances, the great Victor Mature appears as an all-knowing being, the one in control of the remote that decides what we all see. Another is the choreographer Toni Basil, then at the beginning of her career, seen dancing along with Davy Jones to the Harry Nilsson-penned “Daddy’s Song“. One of the musical highlights of the film, the scene is an unexpected opportunity for Jones to show off his theatrical Anthony Newley-esque showmanship. The clever cutting and precise dance moves between the two is breathtaking, and definitely one of Jones’ greatest moments on film.

Among the chaos of Head, some of which must mirror the chaos each of the four Monkees must have felt during the topsy-turvy filming schedule of the show, and the claustrophobic, trapped feeling of many scenes (in particular those portrayed within a literal black box), there is one stand-out moment of calm, tranquillity, and nature. “As We Go Along” is a gorgeous folk love ballad, certainly one of the greatest achievements of the Monkees discography. Tork, Jones, and Nesmith are each seen wandering reflectively through natural scenes, childlike, pensive, solitary, in awe. It is a moment romantic and pure.

Open your eyes, get up off your chair
There’s so much to do in the sunlight
Give up your secrets, let down your hair
And sit with me here by the firelight

Not much about Head makes sense, and not much about it is supposed to make sense, narratively or otherwise. There are some really funny, silly moments, some are spooky and others are just plain weird. But that is part of the fun of the film. That being said, to make any sense of it at all, one has to know how badly each of the Monkees wished to rip off their image that they had grown increasingly resentful of, which they were extremely successful in doing in Head, which left The Monkees dead in its wake. It was a wild and fun ride, frustrating and beautiful, nonsensical and insightful. Head is extremely of its time, place, and its people – the four men who were miraculously brought together for such a brief and influential moment and then scattered apart. Just as the film opens, it closes with its four captives finally escaping, throwing themselves off the bridge and into the water, falling through the sky to “Porpoise Song” once again. It is all over. They are finally free.

I am lucky enough to own the complete Monkees blu-ray box set that was released for the 50th anniversary of The Monkees last year, which includes a stunning HD restoration of Head. For those who aren’t lucky enough to view this breathtaking restoration, the full movie has been uploaded in acceptable quality onto youtube.

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