When last we met, we discussed Monty Python’s Life Of Brian, a movie that got made because George Harrison started a film studio to fund it. Now let’s discuss a film that got made because of a movie that George Harrison was in. Actually, it’s a movie that got made because of a TV show that got made because of a movie that George Harrison was in. In 1964, in response to the unprecedented cultural phenomenon called Beatlemania, United Artists struck a deal for a film starring John, Paul, George and Ringo. Intended as a quickie cash-in before the Beatlemania bubble burst, the subsequent film, called A Hard Day’s Night, was directed in a cinema verite’ style by director Richard Lester and turned out to be, like everything else the Fab Four touched back then, something quite exquisite.
Half a world away, in Southern California, a young filmmaker saw the success of A Hard Day’s Night and was inspired. Actually he had been inspired a couple years earlier, but the success of A Hard Day’s Night made his idea suddenly much more viable. The filmmaker’s name was Bob Rafelson. Rafelson teamed up with a friend named Bert Schneider and together they sold the idea. The pitch was simple: imagine A Hard Day’s Night was a weekly TV series, starring a fictional band? The name of the series will be the name of the band. The band that we create for the series. Anyway, the series, and the band, were both called The Monkees.
The Monkees’ TV show, called The Monkees, starred Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith as The Monkees. But they weren’t playing The Monkees. They were the Monkees. On The Monkees. The Monkees premiered on NBC in September of 1966 and was a huge hit. In addition to being a hit show, The Monkees had a string of hit songs: Last Train To Clarksville, I’m A Believer, Valerie, (I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone, Pleasant Valley Sunday, and on and on. Their first album, also called The Monkees (by The Monkees, from the hit show The Monkees), was released a month after the show premiered and spent three months at number one. The Monkees were beloved by younger teenagers, and their parents, to whom they presented a safer, cuddlier alternative to those strange and terrifying hippies.
But to the hipsters and the movers and shakers, the intelligentsia of the counter culture, “the Pre-Fab Four” was always an object of derision. They weren’t really a band. They didn’t write their own songs or play their own instruments (fun fact, my friend’s dad was the guitarist on some of those early tracks). To their credit, Dolenz, Jones, Tork and Nesmith were aware of this, didn’t like it much themselves, and worked hard to become an actual working band. And they succeeded admirably.
The Monkees entered the national consciousness in 1966, when The Beatles were still moptops and the 60’s were still far out and groovy. But after the horribilis annus that was 1968, that year of assassination, war, drugs, riots, protest, overdoses, Richard Nixon and still more assassination, the mood was turning dark and cynical. By 1968, The Monkees’ goofball antics seemed out of touch. As Tyrell said to Roy Batty, the star that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and the series was cancelled after its second season.
One would assume that The Monkees were finished, but creator Bob Rafelson had a bank shot planned. A movie! A movie based on the TV show that was inspired by a movie! Only this movie would turn both the TV show and the movie that inspired it inside out and upside down. It would be an anti-movie!
Rafelson introduced the band to a friend of his who he felt would be perfect to write the screenplay. Rafelson’s pal was an actor and screenwriter who a had a great anarchic sensibility and would be the perfect person to help The Monkees deconstruct not only themselves, but the business and the culture that created them. It was a tall order, but they had the right man for the job. His name was Jack Nicholson.
Yep. That one. A year before Rafelson and Nicholson did turn Hollywood inside out and upside down with Easy Rider, they had a dry run with The Monkees' movie, Head.
And, it was a disaster!
Of sorts. More on that next week.
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