Head (1968) Starring Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, Carol Doda, Frank Zappa, Terry Garr, Sonny Liston. Directed by Bob Rafelson. Written by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. Produced by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. Run time: 86 minuted. U.S. Color, Comedy, Musical, Satire.
It’s nearly impossible to talk about The Monkees without mentioning The Beatles, because you wouldn’t have the former without the latter. Bob Rafelson may have come up with the idea for the show in 1962, but it took the British Invasion, led by that group for Liverpool, and of course a catching theme song by writers Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, to get it greenlit in 1965.
The TV Series, which had been aptly described like a little bit of Help! (1965) every week was filmed on many of the same sets that Columbia Pictures had built for the Three Stooges shorts and even some of the same props would be reused. The Monkees TV series only lasted two seasons, 1966-1968, but in that short period of time, the “band” had gone from lip-synching front men to demanding to play their own instruments. The Monkees had some very real success on the pop charts, posting several number one singles and albums. They even toured in 1967 with The Jimi Hendrix Experience as an opening act for a few of the gigs.
By the time the series was winding down, the group had already started work on a new venture, a feature film. With Rafelson and actor Jack Nicholson, the group met in Ojai and brainstormed ideas into a tape recorder. They also apparently smoked a lot of weed while doing so. Nicholson then took the tapes home and banged out a screenplay. He apparently took a lot of LSD while he did. The band members were upset about not getting writing credit and three of them boycotted the first day of production, February 15, 1968. The dispute would drive a permanent wedge between them and Rafelson, who not only did receive writing credit, but produced (along with Nicholson) and directed the film.
Production took place at the Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems Studios in Culver City and on the Columbia Ranch (now the Warner Bros. Ranch) in Burbank. There were also scenes shot on the Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach; the Pasadena Rose Bowl; the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant in Playa Del Rey; Bronson Canyon; Palm Springs; the Valley Music Hall, Salt Lake City; and the Bahamas. Filming completed on May 17, 1968 on a budget of reportedly about $750,000.
The film is touted, at least on the DVD case, as being “A Hard Day’s Night on acid” but it’s more like a poor man’s Magical Mystery Tour (1967). Trailers at the time called it "most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made (And that's putting it mildly)." And yes, the film does touch on all of these genres, but it never really does anything with any of them.
The film starts with a ribbon cutting ceremony on the Gerald Desmond Bridge, which is interrupted by the Monkees. Micky Dolenz is in hot pursuit by the other members, Peter Tork, Michael Nesmith and Davy Jones. Micky jumps over the railing and falls into the sea where we’re treated, if that’s the right word, to The Porpoise Song, the best known of the songs from the film.
|Micky Dolenz about to jump from the Gerald Desmond Bridge.|
The colors become distorted the way psychedelic films do and transition into a scene where a girl is in the Monkee pad kissing all four boys one by one as if judging who is the best kisser. On the way out, she relays to Micky that there really isn’t a difference. After she leaves, the screen gets thumbnailed.
We’re next treated to a mockup of The Monkees theme, written by Jack Nicholson. Called the Ditty Diego Chant!, which parodies the Boyce-Hart song. In the song they admit to being a manufactured band amongst other things. The video sequence accompanying it shows what would now be called a thumbnail from pretty much every scene in the film, ending with the horrific piece of footage from the Vietnam war of a local prefect shooting a suspected Viet Cong in the head at close range. This sequence would be replayed several times throughout the film.
After that, we’re thrown in and out of genres and situations, from War to Westerns and on and on. Along the way some famous people show up. Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke (Private One) wearing a football uniform continually tackles Peter Tork as he runs through the trenches to get ammo that his company commander Mike had sent him to get.
|Micheal Nesmith, Davy Jones, Micky and Peter Tork in the film's take on war films.|
The band plays live, in Utah, while footage from Vietnam is mixed in with the band performing and throngs of young girls screaming. The girls rush the stage and literally pull the boys apart.
|The band performing live in Head.|
The film uses some stock footage, including Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California, interspersed with clips from various unrelated movies, including some clips of Bela Lugosi, local car commercials and what not. In the desert, we see Micky Dolenz rolling down a sand dune. Thirsty for water, he comes across a Coke machine in the middle of nowhere, but it’s empty.
|Micky can't believe the Coke machine is empty.|
After Micky struggles with it for a while, an Italian tank comes over the dune and Vito Scotti (I. Vitteloni) gets out. He surrenders the tank and his weapons to Micky, followed by a platoon of Italian soldiers, all who drop their weapons and march off to be POWs. Micky gets into the tank and blows up the Coke machine.
We end up in a Western, so to speak, with one of the first of our cameo appearances, Terri Garr, then credited as Terry Garr (Testy True). Actually, this is only a cameo since Ms. Garr has gone on to bigger and better things. She was still pretty new to Hollywood and this is actually her first lines in a movie, even though they aren’t much and don’t really have anything to do with the story, but of course, there isn’t one.
Cameos continue throughout with Davy boxing Sonny Liston (Extra) in a one-sided fight, even though his girlfriend, Annette Funicello (Teresa/Minnie), in a “spoof” of 30’s boxing films, tries her best to convince him to stick with the violin and not get into the ring. Micky is sitting with Michael assuring him that Davy will take the dive he’s supposed to. Sitting next to Michael is Carol Doda (Sally Silicone), the famous enhanced topless dancer. This sort of spoof was handled much better in Movie Movie (1978).
|Davy Jones picks Sonny Liston as his foil in a boxing match.|
After Micky walks off the Western set and through the backdrop, the boys end up in a coffee shop on the lot, where a man dressed as a woman who runs the place trades insults with the boys before Peter finally punches him. But Peter frets openly to Bob (Rafelson) as the director about how the kids will react to it. With Bob are Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, but the latter is only briefly on the screen and says nothing as he passes through.
The boys end up on a tour of a plant, the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant, where Davy notices some strange goings on that the others, including their tour guide, ignore. No one listens to him until they are trapped in a cargo container. They end up being a part of a dandruff commercial on actor Victor Mature’s (The Big Victor) head and are vacuumed up by his assistant.
While Micky, Mike and Peter end up in the canister, Davy gets hung up in the hose and then manages to escape into his own song and dance routine, Daddy’s Song, with Toni Basil, years before her own hit single, “Mickey” in 1982.
|Davy gets one song and dance number, "Daddy's Song".|
When he leaves the stage Davy is accosted by Frank Zappa, who critiques the number as being awfully white, before walking off with a cow.
|Frank Zappa makes a cameo, walking a cow and criticizing Davy's performance.|
The others escape the container, but not the movie. The rest of which is sort of a hodge podge of ideas, most centering around interactions with Timothy Carey (Lord High 'n' Low), both in and out of a Western movie set. The boys unsurprisingly end up back in the container, but this time it gets dumped out in the middle of the desert.
|The Monkees keep having run-ins with Lord High 'n' Low (Timothy Carey) throughout Head.|
At this point, all the various characters they’ve interacted with during the movie come at them all at once. The boys start running off, with Micky in the lead. They end up back on the Gerald Desmond Bridge and this time we see all four boys leap into the water. This time, they end up in a giant fish tank being pulled on a tractor with Victor Mature sitting on the platform behind the tank.
|All the boys end up in the water at the end of Head.|
The soundtrack music at the end has an almost Help! feel about it, which isn’t that surprising since Ken Thorne, who did the score for Head, also did it for that earlier Beatles film.
This is a stream of consciousness mixed with mind-altering drugs sort of experience and is more like a bad dream than a good movie. Judging by its initial reception, I’m not alone in this opinion.
The movie opened on November 6, 1968 to less than stellar reviews or boxoffice, earning a paltry $16,111. Part of the problem with the box office might be laid at the feet of the film’s marketing. There were no pictures of the Monkees on the original poster (see above); only a picture of John Brockman, who did the PR for the film. The sole television ad also featured Brockman with a close-up shot of his head. After 30 seconds he smiles and the name HEAD appeared on his forehead. The ad was an apparent parody of Andy Warhol's film Blow Job (1963), which only showed a close-up of a man's face for an extended period, supposedly receiving 'head'. Needless to say the ads and promotions were a complete failure. Perhaps whoever devised it was as high as everyone else related to the production.
There are a few films from this time period which I personally blame on LSD. The aforementioned Magical Mystery Tour, How I Won The War (1967), the original Casino Royale (1967) and this one. All were made about the same time and most are pretty much unwatchable unless you’re also imbibing. What sets Magical Mystery Tour above most is the thin plot device that it is a holiday bus tour. There is no plot to hold onto with Head. Another thing that helps Magical Mystery Tour is that it features the Beatles and several of their songs, including “I Am The Walrus”. Head features Beatle-wannabes and some fairly uninteresting songs. Even a “bad” Beatles song beats anything that appears in this film.
Head is really a relic of the 1960s, with its use of psychedelic coloring, its repeated references to the Vietnam War, Transcendental Meditation and it’s obvious drug culture influence. Head has midnight movie written all over it. It’s perhaps best if you don’t pay too close attention to it. Now, I know there are some die-hard Monkees fans out there, but I can’t imagine they really love this film either. While this is more than just an elongated Monkees episode, it is also devoid of much of the zany fun that made that series worth watching.