Despite breaking up in 1971, The Monkees lived on in syndication throughout the decade and that’s when I discovered them. A band created for a TV show — which is a burst of comedy, silliness and catchy songs — they instantly appealed to me.
Originally formed in Los Angeles in 1965 by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, they were Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork and Davy Jones. The band’s music was initially supervised by producer Don Kirshner with their songs written by the songwriting duo of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. The four members of the band were on set filming for nearly twelve hours a day, so session musicians originally played most of their tunes (that said, Nesmith did compose and produce some songs, with Tork playing guitar and all four contributing vocals).
By the TV show’s second season, The Monkees won the right to create their own music, effectively becoming the musicians, singers, songwriters, and producers. By their fourth album, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd., the band was bringing in respected session and star talent like the Wrecking Crew, Glen Campbell, members of the Byrds and the Association, drummer “Fast” Eddie Hoh, Stephen Stills and Neil Young.
However, The Monkees continually battled against thoughts that they were a manufactured band. Sure, that’s how things started, but they weren’t that way any longer. And while their TV show remained successful, they were bored with its conventional format. They proposed making the show a variety program, NBC objected and by then, most of the band weren’t getting along anyway.
After The Monkees was canceled in February 1968, Rafelson co-wrote and directed this film with Schneider as executive producer. Jack Nicholson was the other writer — a virtual unknown at the time — and worked with the band and Rafelson in a jam session weekend with plenty of weed on hand. Later, under the influence of LSD, Nicholson would rewrite the stream of consciousness tapes into the script.
When the band learned that they would not be allowed to direct themselves or to receive screenwriting credit, every Monkee except Peter Tork had a one-day walkout. The studio agreed to a larger share of the film’s profits if the band would come back, which pretty much ended the professional relationship between the band and their creators.
What resulted from the filming is a movie that completely alienated their fanbase. Both Nesmith and Tork felt that this movie was the murder of the band by their creators, who had their eyes on bigger goals.
At the dedication of the Gerald Desmond Bridge, an old man politician struggles with his speech. Suddenly The Monkees appear, racing through the officials and creating chaos. Micky jumps off the bridge to the water below as we hear the words of “Porpoise Song,” as the lyrics intone “a face, a voice, an overdub has no choice, an image cannot rejoice.” He floats under the waves until mermaids find him and bring him back to life.
After a kissing contest with all four Monkees being called “even” by Lady Pleasure (Mireille Machu, Nicholson’s girlfriend at the time), they launch into a distorted version of the TV show’s theme song:
“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!
Hey, hey, we are The Monkees
We’ve said it all before
The money’s in, we’re made of tin
We’re here to give you more!
The money’s in, we’re made of tin
We’re here to give you…”
BAM! A gunshot interrupts the proceedings, with the famous footage of the execution of Viet Cong operative Nguyen Van Lem by Chief of National Police Nguyen Ngoc Loan being shown. Head has no interest in being subtle.
From here, the movie becomes a kaleidoscope of ideas and pastiches, as each Monkee gains a moment in the spotlight, yet none of them are truly happy with their situation and each feels trapped. Any attempt at escape — whether it’s through dance (Davy has a great scene with Toni Basil, who choreographed Head more than a decade before her hit song “Mickey”), punching waitresses, blowing up Coke machines with tanks, attending a strange birthday party (shot on one of the sets of Rosemary’s Baby, which was under production at the same time), a swami who claims to have the answer and even a rampage through the movie set itself, the boys can’t escape their prison, which is a large black box.
That box could be symbolic of the lounge area built for the band during the filming of their television show. When they first started filming, the band would wander the set between takes, bored by the speed of filming. They’d often get lost, so Screen Gems built them a special room where they were forced to remain, smoking cigarettes, playing music and studying their scripts. Whenever a band member was needed on the stage, a colored light corresponding to that member would inform them.
Throughout the film, the band runs into a huge cast of characters, with everyone from Mickey Mouse Club star Annette Funicello, Carol Doda (considered the first public topless dancer), Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Teri Garr, Victor Mature and Dennis Hopper.
After evading the box and all of their enemies in the desert, The Monkees run back to the beginning of the film and all leap from the bridge, this time to the triumphant return of “Porpoise Song.” But it’s all another sham: as they swim away, we see that they’re really stuck in an aquarium, another big box, and they’re taken away on a truck.
Unyielding sadness. Seems a far cry from “Hey, hey we’re The Monkees and people say we monkey around.”
Head bombed hard on release, bringing back only $16,000 on its $750,000 budget. Perhaps it was the ad campaign. While trailers the “most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made (And that’s putting it mildly),” none of the band would appear in the ads.
The Monkees were trapped by another fact: younger and more mainstream audiences rejected the more serious side of the band, along with their new sound. And while critics agreed that this was the best music the band ever recorded — Carole King and Harry Nilsson co-wrote much of the music — serious hippies wanted nothing to do with a band they perceived as plastic and pre-manufactured.
Nesmith said, “By the time Head came out The Monkees were a pariah. There was no confusion about this. We were on the cosine of the line of approbation, from acceptance to rejection…and it was basically over. Head was a swan song.”
At the end of the film, a still shot of a stylized Columbia Pictures logo appears before the movie skips frames, gets tangled and melts, as we hear the soundtrack continue and the laugh of Lady Pleasure. Maybe some joy has escaped the box that The Monkees are trapped in. I’d like to think so, as Head may have been a failure upon release, but when viewed more than fifty years later, it transcends the divide between real and fake, manufactured and created, commerce and art.