If you're a fan of The Cinemorph, please hit the subscribe button! New articles are emailed directly to your inbox and it gives me metrics. Precious metrics!
When we last left Bob Rafelson, his brainchild, the swinging, groovy hit TV show The Monkees had been cancelled. But Rafelson was not finished, saying in an interview, “I felt there was a truth that hasn’t been told, and that is the truth of the accusations about The Monkees’ not singing their own songs; all the so-called ‘adult assault’ on their sensibility. So I thought I should make a movie about that. In other words, expose The Monkees and my relationship to The Monkees as truthfully as I possibly could. Although in a very abstract manner.”
Verrrry abstract. Rafelson hired his friend Jack Nicholson to write the script. Yes, that Jack Nicholson. Not yet a star, Nicholson was known mostly as a B-movie actor with close ties Roger Corman, i.e. The Little Shop Of Horrors, The Terror, etc. Nicholson and Rafelson were friends with shared sensibilities. Rafelson felt he was he perfect man in the job.
To get started, Bob, Jack, Micky, Davy, Peter and Mike retreated to Ojai, CA. where, according to The Guardian, they spent several days smoking pot and pouring ideas into a tape recorder. Nicholson then took the tapes and constructed the story to feel like an LSD trip. The idea was to make a Monkees movie that used the Monkees to deconstruct The Monkees. An avante garde film that satirized its own subject and the medium of film itself.
It was a tall order for a band who’s average fan was about fourteen year’s old.
The film itself got off to a rocky start when Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones didn’t show up on the first day. There are conflicting reports as to whether the walk out was creative or financial, and it only lasted a day, but it was enough to damage the band’s relationship with Rafelson. It was his first day directing his first big film and the cast didn’t show.
Lest you think Rafelson and company were attempting to be subtle in what they were attempting with Head, one of the first songs in the film is a parody of The Monkees famous, “Hey Hey We’re The Monkees” TV Theme called Ditty Diego.
Hey, Hey We’re The Monkees
You know we love to please,
A manufactured image,
With no philosophies!
And ends with…
Hey, hey, we’re The Monkees
We’ve said it all before,
The Money’s in, we’re made of tin,
We’re here to give you more!
Not long after that, the film cuts to the notorious Viet Nam War footage of the South Vietnamese general executing a North Vietnamese soldier.
“Daydream Believer,” it’s not.
From there, Head moves into a non-linear series of Hollywood genre parodies, a Western, a prizefighting move, a desert epic, all in one joyous, surrealistic pastiche. In one scene, Mickey Dolenz breaks the fourth wall and walks out of the scene, tearing a hole through the backdrop painting (breaking the third wall too, I guess). In, in another, Peter Tork summons director Rafelson and writer Nicholson onto the set to complain about the scene we just watched. Sharp-eyed viewers can spot Dennis Hopper in his Easy Rider ensemble on the set as well.
Head, upon its release, was a financial disaster. The problem being, it was a movie made for an audience that had no intention of seeing it, while at the same time going out of its way to alienate the audience that did.
Although greatly disappointed by Head’s cold reception, Rafelson and Nicholson would next collaborate with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda on Easy Rider. That film would, in fact, turn Hollywood inside out and upside down, and make Jack Nicholson a movie star in the process. As for the Monkees, Peter Tork left the band not long after Head’s release. Nesmith, Dolenz and Jones continued for a short while and then they too called it quits.
Time, alas, has been kind to Head, and The Monkees, for that matter. The film is now considered to have been fantastically ahead of its time, a shining example of the oft-neglected American avante garde. It’s a punk movie, in spirit if not in musical genre. Quentin Tarantino has expressed his affection for the film, and it earned a glossy release from Criterion.
Of course, not everyone is a fan. Asked his opinion of film, Monkee Davy Jones told The Guardian, “We should have made Ghostbusters.”