When one thinks of the crucial canon of the sixties countercultural film movement, certain movies come to mind: Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show. And they’re all collected on Criterion’s new Blu-ray collection, America Lost and Found: The BBS Story, which assembles seven movies from Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider’s influential and innovative studio. But the set also includes one film that sticks out among the classic dramas: Head, the Monkees’ first and only film. On first glance, it’s jarring in the same way that it was jarring in its failed 1968 release, which came out shortly before the band broke up: The Monkees were known for their goofy, family friendly TV series, and yet this movie was a psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness satire on fame, war, and their own prefab fame. How incongruous was this movie with the band’s image? Imagine a Jonas Brothers movie directed by Lars Von Trier. It tanked when it opened because it was too surreal for kids, and, says singer-drummer Micky Dolenz, “A lot of the hip people, the intelligentsia, wouldn’t see the movie anyway because it was the Monkees.” More than 40 years later, many consider Head a cult classic, though, as we discovered, that contingent still doesn’t include all of the Monkees.
The film came to be as the group’s 1966–68 series was ending; Rafelson (who had directed several episodes, and would go on to make Five Easy Pieces) introduced the quartet to Jack Nicholson, who was going to write the screenplay. Singer-drummer Dolenz remembers that Nicholson “had done a couple B-movies and wanted to get into production. He was funny, charming and had a ton of charisma — we got along great.” The band, Nicholson, and Rafelson retreated to an Ojai Valley hotel with a tape recorder (and, one would guess, given the era and the finished product, some pot) to discuss the film. “We sat around all day long and part of the night talking about what we wanted to do, what we didn’t want to do, and what kind of a movie it would be,” Dolenz recalls. “At the end of the weekend, we ended up with hours of tape that Jack took away, and out of those conversations and the experiences we had hanging out, they came up with this movie, Head.”
When Head arrived in theaters, the fans who actually saw the movie were expecting comedic, zany fun and feel-good hits — not a surreal film that touched on everything from Vietnam (including actual footage of a Viet Cong execution) to the exhausting, superficial nature of fame. In the opening ten minutes, the band made the tone clear: They chant a biting recasting of their TV theme, which includes the lines, “Hey, hey, we are the Monkees, you know we love to please / A manufactured image, with no philosophies.” Even John Lennon waited until the Beatles were broken up before deconstructing their public image.
Peter Tork (widely believed to be the most musical Monkee, sticking mostly to keyboards and bass on the show) today expresses mixed feelings toward the film. He enjoys the surreal, nonlinear quality of the film — “We liked to think of ourselves as a bit avant-garde,” he says — but he finds the overall tone of the film to be oppressively pessimistic. “Rafelson’s movies are extremely bleak,” he suggests. “They all say life is not much, and it ends with random and gratuitous idiocies and violence. Out of the blue, people die for no direct cause, aside from just being interesting people.”
In fairness, it should be noted that Tork admits to not getting along with the director: “I didn’t enjoy working for Bob Rafelson, so [filming] was difficult for me.” Still, Tork’s distaste for the film stems more from his philosophical reaction to what he perceives as the film’s message of hopelessness, which seemed to be directed specifically at the band. “The movie begins with us being chased and jumping into water, and it ends with us in a tank of water which we can’t escape,” Tork points out. “In Rafelson’s view, that’s your story if you are the Monkees. You are chased and trapped and there’s no getting out of it. There was no room in Rafelson’s thinking that there was any place for the Monkees to go. It was, ‘You’re doomed.’”
Dolenz, on the other hand, is much more of a believer in the film. “We were always the victims in the movie, which is interesting” he says. “[Head] is sort of a deconstruction of the Monkees. But more than that, it was also a deconstruction of the Hollywood system at the time.” Nevertheless, Dolenz admits much of the film may have been odd just for oddness’s sake. “Me jumping off bridge [in the film’s cold open] may mean jumping into the unknown,” he opines, “But who know what it means? Maybe nothing. Like Sigmund Freud said, sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, and I think there may be a little of that going on [in Head].” Tork voiced a similar opinion: “Some things were entirely just for the funny of it,” he says citing a Lawrence of Arabia parody where Dolenz wanders the desert, only to end up assaulting a malfunctioning Coke machine.
Even though it followed on the tails of two enormously successful TV seasons and numerous hit singles, theater attendance was abysmal. Partly to blame was the marketing campaign that was almost as avant-garde as the film itself, but even worse was the fact that many theaters (successfully) demanded the film’s G-rating be turned into a Mature rating, simply because the film structure allegedly resembled an acid trip. The dissolution of the band followed soon after the flop, but both Tork and Dolenz deny there was any cause/effect. Tork, the first to leave, explains that although he still got along with the other Monkees, he “wanted to be in a pop-rock band … ultimately, it began to dawn on me that the other three weren’t interested in that.” He continues, “I don’t think the Monkees would have gone on [even] had the movie been more conventional. The movie was in some ways a last flicker … We were headed into our decline and in order to rejuvenate we would have to have done a lot of hard work and stuck with it, and I don’t think we had the energy. I don’t think you can blame it on the movie.”
Dolenz agrees that the movie didn’t end the Monkees, pointing out that when Head was released, “The TV show was off the air, so in a sense there was no Monkees. The Monkees was not a group or a band. The Monkees was a television show about a band, an imaginary band that didn’t really exist and still doesn’t exist in that sense.” He likens the Monkees on tour to the actors in Galaxy Quest suddenly forced to battle real aliens.
Still, the movie’s initial failure must have been somewhat bothersome, because Dolenz admits he “feels vindicated to have the Head get such a great reception and cult following” over the years. “When you think of the films and television shows about the hippie sixties culture, most of them — not to name any — look a little corny now,” Dolenz says. “People weren’t really wandering around in bell-bottoms, smoking a joint, and riding around in VW buses with flowers all over them and going, ‘Far out man, coooool.’ People didn’t really behave like that on the whole. Head is not like that. I think it is one of the movies that really did capture the feeling and sensibility of the time.”