Head (86 minutes) Rated G/1968 – starring Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, Timothy Carey, Sonny Liston, Ray Nitschke, Logan Ramsey, Carol Doda, Terri Garr, and Frank Zappa. Directed by Bob Rafelson. Released through Rhino Home Video.
The Monkees film “Head” is very dated. It has moments of silly, slapstick humor that are stale with age. The supporting actors like Victor Mature and Annette Funicello make it feel like a B-grade endeavor. But taken as a whole, “Head” is one of the most trenchant, intriguing, and oftentimes very slyly-witted time capsules ever to come out of cinematic history. Sure the Monkees’ television show was just an innovative, amped-up kiddie show. And while this G-rated film has the wacky underpinnings of its broadcast cousin, the tone and subtext are refreshingly adult and very insightful.
“Head” begins with the foursome interrupting a bridge dedication, scrambling through the honored ceremony, and jumping, seemingly, to their death into the harbor below. Thus begins a series of “sketches,” smoothly transitioning from one to the other, with each lasting no more than five minutes or less at a stretch. There is no linear narrative. Don’t look for a main plot. The scenes that make up the film are commentaries on the state of the world and where the Monkees fit in. And it’s not a very positive picture.
The screenplay was a result of a brainstorming weekend between the Monkees and writers Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. It’s no secret that the session was enhanced by a little narcotics usage, and the film certainly has a ‘druggy’ feel to it, what with all the flash editing, slow motion sequences and solarization techniques (shots in which the film negative is colorized). The Monkees spotlight drug allusions in scenes where they smoke from opium pipes in a harem, and when Mike Nesmith finds a giant joint inside a huge vacuum cleaner they’ve been sucked into (“See now, this isn’t one of your standard brands,” he says). The film’s title could allude to how they’re out to mess with the audience’s mind, or it might be a reference to the types of drug paraphernalia shops prevalent during the late ‘60s.
The Monkees don’t shy away from satirizing the problems of their day. The Vietnam War is spoofed in an effective, dry humor sequence in which the boys are pinned down in a foxhole by enemy fire. Peter Tork is sent to retrieve more ammo, and as he runs for a neighboring foxhole, a man with a camera steps in front of him, exclaiming, “Hold it! This is for Life!” Suddenly, Peter’s image is captured on the cover of the famed magazine. It’s random, yet wickedly revealing in the way it shows how media coverage of the war tried to sway national opinion. When Peter leaps into the adjacent foxhole, he’s hammered continuously by professional football linebacker Ray Nitschke, who’s sporting a jersey with the numeral one on it. It’s as if to say America, that football-lovin’ country, was trying to pummel their soldiers into winning one for the Gipper.
What is truly unique is that the film nakedly tries to tear down the public’s perception of their Monkee idols and shows us how much they seemed to hate their personas. A waitress at a studio commissary greets them by saying, “Well if it isn’t God’s gift to the 8-year olds!” She ribs drummer Micky, “Are you still paying tribute to Ringo Starr?” Annette Funicello cries for heartthrob lead singer Davy Jones in a tender scene, but then we see a makeup person applying fake droplets to her cheek. Gorgeous women fans are ignored with disdain by the guys, and yet, on the flip side, when one female admirer samples kisses from all four of the Monkees, she simply exits, quite unimpressed. After a live concert performance, in which the boys sing the rousing “Circle Sky,” fans rush onto the stage to tear at them, only to discover the group is made up of mannequins. When Mike is given a surprise birthday party, complete with groovy, adoring fans, he is disgusted and angry, unhappy to be thrown a celebration. A burly, almost zombie-like man with a noose around his neck steps forward and wails, “Attaboy, Mike!”
In fact, the Monkees never appear at peace or in good spirits throughout the entire picture. Their remarks are always cutting, without the relief of empathy or good-naturedness about them. This is a very calculated decision in the overall way they convey their disconnection to the trappings of pop-star life. The only time they seem content is during a “pastoral” vignette midway through the movie, played to the excellent Carole King/Gerry Goffin song, “As We Go Along.” In this sequence, the four Monkees are isolated in beautiful nature settings, simply walking about, free of their celebrity baggage.
The blessed moment doesn’t last long. Throughout the rest of the picture, the quartet keep winding up in a big, barren, black box. No matter how many times they try to escape it, they get dropped back into it. Even when they make their final break, and subsequently, return to where they once started, back to leaping from a bridge to a watery death, they wind up stuck inside a watery box. It’s as if they can’t escape the box their producers, their fans, and the medium of television itself has put them in. All very heady stuff indeed.
© 2001 Ned Truslow