Wanting to feel, to know what is real… ‘Head’

❉ An appreciation of The Monkees’ subversive, satirical and psychedelic cult film and its themes of reality, self, and authenticity.

By all rights, I shouldn’t be the one writing this review. As much as I am a Monkees fan, the true fan was my best friend and self-adopted sister, Jennifer Adams Kelley. She’d been a Monkees aficionado long before we met at the age of 13, and she remained one till the day she died. If not for her, I’d never have seen the film on the big screen, and we saw it together for the first time on February 9th, 1984… Since she can’t write this piece, the task falls to me.

But like Head, let’s rewind back to the beginning…

I was only 3 years old in the Fall of 1966 when The Monkees debuted on American television. My parents weren’t into rock and roll, and I don’t think we ever watched the show during its original run. However, thanks to a syndicated Saturday morning slot on another network starting in 1969, little Me became a Monkees fan, at least the cute and cuddly television versions of the original Pre-Fab Four. I have fond memories me singing along with their early albums (especially I’m Gonna Buy Me A Dog) with my cousins in their basement, and spending time with my slightly older friend who lived across the street, giggling over her copies of teen mags like 16 and Tiger Beat, and swooning over how cute Davy Jones was.

Image source: sotcaa.org

Although Head was released in 1968, five-year-old Me had no idea that the film even existed. (Even if I’d been aware of it, it was hardly the kind of movie fare for a kindergartner!) Then again, neither did most of the known world. The initial marketing for the film was a travesty and Head was a box office flop, making all of $16,000 after a $790,000 budget.

It’s obvious now that the film was far ahead of its time. Only a year or so later, across the Atlantic, Monty Python’s Flying Circus would be using a similar formula of disjointed, absurdist sketches, breaking the fourth wall to great effect. A mere six years later, films like The Groove Tube and Kentucky Fried Movie would be revered as satires on tv, films and other pop culture of the day, while US television shows like Saturday Night Live would take those same ideas and run with them.

Head was pretty much unseen until the 1980s. It wasn’t even on the usual midnight circuit of cult movies, rock films and stoner comedies which my friends and I frequented as teens. My first exposure to Head was in 1984 at a college campus screening in a double feature with What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, scheduling courtesy of Jennifer. There was no legitimate home video until the mid ‘80s (although some of us paid ridiculous prices for bootlegged copies of films and tv shows) and even then, what little there was offered very limited choices. From 1982 to 1984, I worked in a video store which prided itself on carrying “cult, classic and foreign films” and Head was not a title anyone had heard of.

The film was finally released in several formats in late 1986 and it hit cable TV in the US around the same time, then began picking up steam. This was due in part to the Monkees renaissance happening in the US thanks to re-airings of the Monkees’ series on MTV. I finally got to see it again when I was in graduate school, scheduled by the University Union crew I was involved with, partly because we were all cult film fanatics, partly because we were all music geeks.

But, you may ask, what is Head about? On the surface, it’s not about anything. It’s visually arresting, the epitome of late ’60s psychedelia, and has a stellar soundtrack with songs from such long-time Monkees composers as Harry Nilsson, and Gerry Goffin & Carole King, as well Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork. The film’s non-existent plot meanders from one scene to another without rhyme or reason, interspersed with musical interludes.

Image source: sotcaa.org

In actuality, each scene is biting satire of and pointed commentary on well-known film genres, as well as such hot button topics of the time like the Vietnam War. The actors are both old school names such as Victor Mature and Annette Funicello, and up and coming talent like Teri Garr (her first on-screen lines) and Toni Basil (who shines in the song and dance number Daddy’s Song with Davy Jones). There are also cameos by such disparate names as Sonny Liston, Tor Johnson, and established counter-culture musician Frank Zappa (who’d already appeared in the penultimate Monkees TV episode Monkees Blow Their Minds). Dig a little deeper, and the consistent running theme is identity, both real and manufactured.

It’s odd that here and now celebrity is all about artifice, and the carefully curated and cultivated (by teams of hundreds) image rather than some modicum of authenticity. To quote a song by another well-known 1960s pop group (and a song Peter whistles in the film) “nothing is real”. It’s all filters, photoshop, media teams, and corporate sponsors, along with the pretense of writing songs and playing instruments actually done by others. Today, groups are created by impresarios rather than organically coming together on the music scene. Ironically in the 1960s, the Monkees were reviled for being “manufactured” for the masses, actors pretending to be musicians even though Nesmith was a highly accomplished songwriter/musician, Tork the master of multiple instruments, Dolenz an incredible singer and competent player who’d fronted several rock bands, and Jones the veteran of East End and Broadway shows, and a budding pop star in his own right (not to mention a virtuoso tambourine player). To this day, the Monkees have been denied consideration for induction into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame because of their alleged prefabricated and therefore inauthentic nature.

Head repeatedly plays with the ideas of reality, self, and authenticity, all strong 1960s concepts. It touches on Eastern mysticism as a source of answers to those questions (coincidentally filmed around the same time the Beatles were studying under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh, India), and the entire thing is so trippy, every frame of the film so drug infused, that it practically gives the viewer a contact high. This shouldn’t be a shock given the script was brainstormed by the Monkees, director Bob Rafelson and writer/actor Jack Nicholson during a drug-fuelled weekend in Ojai, California, with that material later assembled and scripted by Nicholson on his own while tripping on LSD.

Head also subverts the images of the Monkees, taking their formerly squeaky-clean and G-rated exploits into darker, weirder territory. Sex is definitely at the forefront, starting with a beautiful redhead comparing and contrasting French kisses between the four Monkees, eventually deciding they’re all “even” in prowess. This comes off as a sly dig on teen fan magazines which offered such inane articles as “Which Monkee Do You Think Is the Best Kisser?”  A whispered proposition from Mike elicits a laugh before the redhead responds with “you’ve got to be kidding me” before she walks out. Clearly more commentary on the perceived impotence of being a Monkee.

An entire sequence set to the Peter Tork-penned Can You Dig It? features scantily-clad belly dancers gyrating and cavorting in a faux-Middle Eastern setting while the clearly stoned Monkees ogle them, make out with them, and puff away on hookahs. Quite a far cry from the Monkees’ starry-eyed and nearly chaste exploits on television.

Another strongly repeated theme is being trapped, symbolic of the prisons of fame and the manufactured images from which the four Monkees were trying so desperately to break free. They continuously find themselves forced into bizarre but clichéd film scenes, and locked inside enclosures: vacuums, prisons, bathrooms, and a black box which Micky Dolenz has stated was a metaphor for life as the Monkees: “When we were on tour, especially – but even being on the TV [show] set. We couldn’t leave a room or hotel. We were shuffled around from limo to hotel room to limo to the back entrance of a concert arena in a dressing room…. so for more than two years, we lived – literally – in a little black box.”

They also constantly break the fourth wall as a form of escape. This is both figurative and literal as they crash through the backdrops of movie sets onto adjacent sets, walk out of scenes, call out the director, and even kick out the walls of one black box only to ultimately find themselves imprisoned in another. The four Monkees constantly try to prove to themselves and to the audience that they have free will, but that doesn’t seem to work in the “real” world or the chambered nautilus of film sets, tv sets, and concert stages they repeatedly find themselves on. Free will is illusory, and they are merely pawns at the hands of directors, producers, corporate branding, and a cruel universe. The film ends as it starts, going full circle as the Monkees run to escape everyone, and plunge off the Gerald Desmond Bridge — only for their psychedelic polarized lagoon to turn into a glass aquarium sitting on the back of a truck which carries them away. Once again, the Monkees are trapped. The opening lines from Ditty Diego (War Chant) at the start of the film say it all:

“You say we’re manufactured
To that we all agree
So, make your choice and we’ll rejoice
In never being free!”

Head shines a light on the darkest side of fame, the lack of authenticity, free will, and freedom exchanged for the price of celebrity. Over fifty years later, the Monkees haven’t managed to escape their box. Can they – or any of us – ever truly be free?

❉ Previously released on VHS and DVD, ‘Head’ (1968) was released on Blu-ray as part of Rhino’s ‘The Monkees: The Complete Series’ boxset in 2016 and is currently available as part of the Criterion Collection ‘America Lost and Found: The BBS Story’. It is currently unavailable as a standalone Blu-ray release. The accompanying soundtrack album was originally released via Colgems Records, December 1968, and released on CD with previously unreleased bonus tracks by Rhino Records in 1994 and as a Rhino Handmade 3-disc deluxe edition in 2010.

❉ Writer, panellist, event organiser, cosplayer, podcaster, doll expert and ’60s Pop Culture geek Jan Fennick is the co-author of ‘Red White & Who: The Story Of Doctor Who In America’ and has contributed to Cult Ink’s David Bowie anthology ‘Me And The Starman’ and every volume of ATB Publishing’s ‘Outside In’ series. She’s also the former co-presenter on Return to the Hellmouth and Drag Hag podcasts, as well as occasional guest commentator on Trap One: A Doctor Who podcast.

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