Head, the Bob Rafelson-directed and Jack Nicholson-scripted film starring The Monkees, arrives in a new special edition Blu-ray set from Criterion, America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, this week. I only just received the set this week so my review will have to wait, but until then I offer this essay written for a screening at Seattle’s Grand Illusion in the late 1990s.
Teri Garr is fond of telling the story of how Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson came to name their Monkees feature: they hoped for a sequel so they could advertise it as “from the people who gave you Head.”
Rafelson had helped create the Monkees, TV’s veritable pre-fab four, but by the time the feature came around the goofy lads had learned to play their instruments, started writing their own songs, and took themselves seriously enough to take a chance with their image. Legend has it that the script was written one weekend with the Monkees, Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, a tape recorder, and a bag of Acapulco Gold. The result was more than an extension of the TV show, it was a complete reworking of the show’s style and sensibility, and Rafelson took the opportunity to make his feature filmmaking debut.
The Monkees’ TV show was a light romp through sitcom cliches. Despite it’s pre-MTV montage style, it relied on a traditional arsenal of jokes and sight gags with a couple of songs sandwiched in between. Head trades in goofy gags for satire, montage-style editing for surreal associations, and teenage romance for darker themes presented in a psychedelic style. It’s still packed with non-sequiters and outrageous situations, but it follows a dream logic (or illogic), played to a (hoped for) audience of hipsters clued in by the title and ready for a trip. Deep? Maybe not, but certainly Head-ier stuff for our mop-topped TV stars.
“You say we’re manufactured; to that we will agree…,” they remark in an early sequence. A few minutes later, a concert sequence turns into a riot and the boys are ripped apart as department store mannequins by screaming fans. Yes, these are the self-reflexive Monkees, remarking upon their own manufactured existence, and commercialization in general, through a series of gags and sketches. Another recurring theme is violence, from Vietnam footage to genre parodies (westerns, war films, etc) to surprisingly vicious gag punches, with soldiers, guns, and explosions appearing throughout. This was clearly not made for their teenaged fans.
So what’s it about? Concepts of reality? The nature of violence? The effects of commercialism? Maybe, but ultimately it’s about the Monkees leaving their teeny-bopper image (and fan base) behind to and become a serious band, or at least to make music for their peers. Sadly, it’s also their swan song. Head was a financial flop, the TV show was canceled, their music no longer reigned on the charts, and in a few years they broke up. Perhaps after so long a bubble-gum pop band no one was ready to take them as anything else. But at least they left behind this wonderful cultural artifact, a slice of psychedelia with a sensibility.
But why should you listen to me? For I know nothing.
Directed by Bob Rafelson; written and produced by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson; choreography by Toni Basil; featuring The Monkees (Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork), with appearances by Timothy Carey, Annette Funicello, Teri Garr, Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Victor Mature, and Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson as themselves.