“Have It Cleaned and Burned.”
Head was released November 6, 1968, directed by Bob Rafelson, and written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson. That’s right, Jack freakin’ Nicholson wrote Head. Apparently Nicholson was a huge fan of the film when it was finished. Hey, it’s good to be proud of your work.
According to the book, Monkeemania by Glen A. Baker, Columbia Pictures gave Raybert a $750,000 budget, expecting a teen exploitation film, something very similar to the weekly show. Apparently, this was not what Rafelson or the Monkees had in mind. Rafelson thought he’d never have another chance to direct, so he wanted to emulate every type of Hollywood movie all at once, make a “movie about movies” and expose the showbiz process. The Monkees wanted to direct the film themselves, but Rafelson, Schneider, and Nicholson were against this idea. Instead, they got creative input, resulting in a brainstorming session (on acid) where they put every crazy idea they had for the movie on a tape recorder. Nicholson organized the tapes into a script.
I was confused and disappointed with this movie when I first saw it; if you’re a fan of the show, it’s not the film you’re expecting. I always thought Head could have been a more “adult version” of The Monkees (“bigger, better, longer, and uncut”) and still tackled the same themes: the war protest, killing their pop star image, the plastic and manufactured products of Hollywood, the Media. Perhaps a still subversive but tighter, wittier film with a plot, related to the show but using the more permissive medium of film. On the other hand, if Head had featured a fictional band that was created just for the purposes of this movie, or featured another real-life band of the time, I would have no expectations of what the humor, characters, and story should be like, and I would probably have liked the movie on first viewing. I like weird, surreal, and subversive and I like the themes that Head gets into. There are a lot of funny moments and moments to appreciate in Head.
I. Opening Ceremony
Music: “The Porpoise Song” by Gerry Goffin/Carole King.
The Monkees interrupt an opening ceremony for a bridge, running for their lives through the red ribbon. Micky jumps into the water to escape it all and swims around with some mermaids. The film transitions from Micky underwater to Micky making out with a woman back at the Monkees’ house. She kisses each Monkee in turn. Two lines explain everything. Mike: “Well?” Woman (making a so-so gesture): “Even.” Multiple Monkees have made out with the same girl before, like in “Hillbilly Honeymoon,” but on film, with the slow lingering shots, it feels so much sleazier. Thanks, Bob.
Music: “Ditty Diego-War Chant” by Jack Nicholson/Robert Rafelson.
As the Monkees chant, the screen turns into a multiple televisions, showing various scenes yet to come. The lyrics pretty much spell it all out for the audience:
Hey, hey, we are the Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies
We hope you like our story
Although there isn’t one
That is to say, there’s many
That way there is more fun…
Music: “Circle Sky” by Michael Nesmith.
All the televisions fill with an iconic image from the Vietnam war (General Ngoc Loan executing Viet Cong suspect Nguyen Van Lem.) A girl screams but not in horror; she’s at a rock concert with other screaming fans. The next scenes juxtapose images of war, explosions, etc. with scenes of the Monkees performing and the hysterical reactions of the crowd. There’s also a sketch with the Monkees as soldiers, the highpoint of which is Peter running for ammo and getting photographed for the cover of Life magazine. The horrors of war become a media spectacle; Vietnam was known as the first televised war and those images made the war incredibly controversial. Since I’m putting this out on Election Day, and we’re living in such politically charged times, I’ll mention that when Head was released, 50 years ago, it was one day after the election of President Nixon. It was a volatile election year, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr, Robert F. Kennedy, and widespread opposition to the Vietnam War.
At the concert, girls rush on stage to tear the Monkees apart. You could replace the Monkees with any hugely popular rock band and the image would still work. There are terrible things, war and tragedy, but all that matters is the Monkees are on stage (or the Stones or Beatles etc.).Once the girls start ripping them to pieces, they are revealed to be mannequins, referring to the notion of them as “manufactured.”
Continuing the television theme, an unseen person flips through the channels of various black and white television and film clips . (the Oliver Stone movie, Natural Born Killers certainly owes a huge debt to Head.)The viewer settles on a scene of Micky stranded in the desert. Dying of thirst, he finds a Coca-Cola machine. Finding it empty, he proceeds to beat the crap out of it. In this scene, look out for William Bagdad (“Everywhere a Sheik, Sheik” ) and Vito Scotti (“The Case of the Missing Monkee”) as an Italian soldier who surrenders his tank and weapon to Micky.
One of the most satisfying moments in Head is Micky blowing up the Coke machine with the tank. With great anti-establishment spirit, he takes down an iconic American corporation. It’s also the fantasy of seeing someone get back at a frustrating situation. The Monkees are caught up in a corporate machine throughout Head; this is one of the rare scenes where they get revenge.
Music: “Can You Dig It?” by Peter Tork.
The Monkees loved to satirize, parody, and spoof every type of Hollywood movie genre. Head pretty much rips down the fourth wall, exposing the fakeness of movies with more anger than humor. Among the different genres mocked here are: War, Western, Live Action Disney, Horror, gangster films, etc. In the middle of shooting a Western scene, Micky calls bullshit on everything and walks off set, Mike following behind. They find Davy in the midst of shooting some Disney-type film, and take him along. The Monkees spend most of the rest of film walking in and out of various sets and onto the back lot of Columbia studios. Terri Garr, Annette Funicello, and Tim Carey are among the guest stars in these scenes.
Mike, Micky, and Davy end up in the studio commissary. The other patrons rush out, muttering they can’t eat with them around, long hair, etc. I read somewhere that when the young actors were shooting the first season of the TV show, patrons of the Columbia studio cafeteria didn’t like having them around because of their long hair. Once everyone else is gone, the throaty-voiced waitress sarcastically calls the Monkees “God’s gift to the eight-year-olds.”
Most of the other characters in Head seem to hate the Monkees, including the Monkees themselves. The Huffington Post article about the film notes that the Monkees were tired of the show, tired of being a teen idol band, and wanted to be taken seriously. Writing, producing, and playing all the instruments on Headquarters didn’t get the job done. Head was their way of breaking with their own image. Rafelson and Schneider were tired of the Monkees as well. This was Raybert’s way of destroying their creation.
The waitress smacks Davy, transitioning into the boxing scenes, in which Davy gets the crap beat out of him by (real-life boxer) Sonny Liston. Mike and Micky have bet money based on him throwing the match and have an argument about who’s “the dummy.” This leads to Micky freaking out and punching everyone, including cops and the blonde moll-type (real-life stripper Carole Doda). Peter appears out of nowhere and meta comments on the “Peter” character he played on the weekly show:
This boxing scene segues into Peter back in the commissary, where he punches out the waitress (who is revealed, to no one’s surprise, to be played by a man.) The filming breaks and we get “behind-the-scenes” of Peter worrying about his “image” to the director Rafelson (breaking the fourth wall and acting as himself). Jack Nicholson is in the background of the scene (as is Dennis Hopper briefly).
Music “As We Go Along” by Goffin/King.
Monkees wander various landscapes, a beach, a flower garden, reminiscent of “Monkees on Tour”/”Monkees in Paris,” also directed by Rafelson. This segues into the Monkees on a factory tour. We never find out what the factory makes. Maybe the Monkees themselves since they are “manufactured” per the lyrics. Prescient line from the tour guide, as things become more automated and humans do less and less for themselves, and as people consume more television and other types of media.
“A new world, whose only preoccupation will be how to amuse itself. The tragedy of your times, my young friends, is you may get exactly what you want.”
IV. The Black Box
The Monkees are shut into a dark room and forced to perform as Victor Mature’s dandruff for a television commercial. From this point onward in Head the Monkees are, with a few exceptions, passively moved from one situation to another by the editing. They’re sucked into a vacuum where they find giant tacks, buttons, a needle and a joint. Davy’s not with them, so they make a human ladder to crawl back up and look for him. The dialogue here would almost have fit in on the show.
Micky: Somebody has to be on the bottom.
Mike: Well, I’m the tallest and the strongest.
Micky: So you’re the bottom.
Mike: I—oh, well…
Peter: Everybody’s where they wanna be.
Micky: That was a particularly inept thing to say, Peter, considering that we are in a vacuum cleaner.
Music: “Daddy’s Song” by Harry Nilsson.
Davy performs a song and dance number with choreographer Toni Basil (“Hey Mickey!”). In this fantastic scene, the dancing, the song, the editing with the two different backgrounds and costume changes; it’s perfect for him. Also, it’s hard not to tear up when he says “The years have passed and so have I,” given his death in 2012. This scene is an example of how intricate the editing in this film is (Michael Pozen and Monte Hellman). Throughout Head, each crazy sketch leads brilliantly into the next, though there’s no storyline to support the transitions. It’s a bit like the Monty Python film, And Now For Something Completely Different.
Davy wanders back out onto the lot where he runs into The Critic, who is leading a cow. (Frank Zappa, who also appeared in “The Monkees Blow Their Minds.”)
The Critic: “That song was pretty white.”
Davy: “Well, so am I, what can I tell ya?”
On the back studio lot, Mike, Micky, and Peter slowly emerge from a large black box and get hassled by a cop. They find themselves repeatedly back in this box throughout the rest of the film. Again, per Monkeemania, during the shooting of The Monkees there was an actual “black box” lounge area they were “kept” at times when they weren’t needed on set. This was the producers answer to the problems caused when the Columbia/Screen Gems executives didn’t like seeing the “long-haired” youths wandering around on the back lot.
After Davy and a corp of soldiers march the cop away, Davy excuses himself to use the bathroom. There are quite a few scenes in the bathroom, apparently a huge deal because films/television at that time pretended bathrooms didn’t exist. Cleverly edited sequence where Davy’s in a horror movie, and Micky’s in a jungle picture where the natives chain him to the wall along with Mike and Peter. The wall revolves and they’re back in the white-tiled bathroom with their hands up (where they would’ve been chained from the previous scene.) The cop hassles them some more.
V. The Real vs. The Imagined
The next sequence is called “The Cop’s Dream,” but would have made more sense if it was Mike’s dream. Mike’s nap gets disrupted by the door buzzer. Peter finally answers it but Mike can’t go back to sleep because first Peter, then Davy and Micky are all missing. He wanders around the Monkees house in his pajamas, and it’s cut to look like a horror film with creepy music and effects. He opens a creaky door and finds three robed men/Monkees who sing happy birthday to him. The whole scene bursts into a wild birthday party set to music. Everyone but Mike is dancing.
Music: “Do I have to do this all over again” (Peter Tork)
The song title is an excellent question. After all, the end of the film is the same as the beginning, I’m guessing these Monkees personas do this same thing every single day. Get chased around back lots, trapped in the black box, try to drown themselves, get taken back to the studio and repeat.
After the song, Mike yells at the crowd that he hates surprises “and the same thing goes for Christmas.” This makes the crowd gasp dramatically. (Ha!) Everyone starts laughing, assuming Mike is joking. Lord High n’ Low enters rolling in a wheelchair. He stands up, then staggers around and collapses, slurring his words. The Monkees start laughing hysterically.
They’ve been inserted into a Western where High n’ Low fires a rifle and tells them not to make fun of cripples. There’s now a montage of b/w interviews with various people explaining why it’s wrong to laugh at others and the possible punishments you should get for doing so. The Monkees wake up in a jail as a voice whispers “guilty.” This dissolves into a Yogi in a sauna who lectures about beliefs and conditioning. He speaks about the real vs. vividly imagined experiences to his student, Peter.
In the studio backlot, Mike and Micky are in a crowd, looking up at a woman who’s about to jump off a building and they make bets on whether she’ll go through with it. The Monkees are very unappealing in this movie, compared to their television show fictional personalities. On The Monkees, the characters were goofy and cowardly but friendly and always willing to help the underdogs. They had a strong friendship and they were also agents of chaos. They fought back. They caused trouble. The Monkees in Head on the other hand are tools; unlikable because they never try very hard to get out of this circle of hell. They have no charm, they aren’t engaging, they’re mostly humorless, they have no empathy for each other or other characters in the film. I don’t care about these characters as they continue to get destroyed by the ridiculous circumstances. It’s another way Head kills off the Monkees image.
The four of them end up back in the black box. Mike is impatient, angry with Peter who he thinks knows the way out. Peter takes charge and relays his conversation with “The Master.” He makes the point that the brain is almost incapable of telling difference between the “real and the vividly imagined.” Sound, film, radio, etc. He paraphrases the yogi’s speech, ending by saying he’s knows nothing.
Maybe this is obvious, but I like the theory that this is all happening in the Monkees minds or “heads” if you will; the ridiculous situations, constantly being trapped in their image as a bubblegum, teeny-bop band. Throughout the film, they never do escape.
The idea that the brain can’t tell the difference between the imagination and the reality is the point because the Monkees played characters that were “fictionalized” versions of themselves. They had their real names, etc. The actors in the show went on tour as a real band. They played live and made records outside the scope of the television show. Not to mention on the show episodes there were those frequent flips between the reality of the plot and the Monkees shared fantasies.
Then, of course, there is the audience. We all like to think we know the difference between fantasy and reality but do we always? I’m not talking fake news here, I’m talking about the things we convince ourselves of everyday, and how sometimes memories of books or movies get mixed up with memories of real life. We have to walk a very careful line with the amount of stuff that gets dumped into our brain constantly. Analyze it, sort it out.
Davy gets angry that Peter has no real solution so he becomes an action hero, punches and breaks out of the box. The other three follow suit and they all fight the factory workers. Lee Kolima (“The Spy Who Came in from the Cool,” “The Devil and Peter Tork”) plays a security guard in this scene. The Monkees burst through the painted wall into a Western scene. Lord High n’ Low and his posse threaten the Monkees, but with a gift from the editors, Davy suddenly has that often used cannon and blasts them away. (Peter: “Where’d he get the cannon?” Heh.)
Speaking of fighting, the Monkees themselves staged one more fight at the start of the production of Head. On the first day of Head, Micky, Mike, and Davy didn’t show up for filming. They were protesting that they wouldn’t get more money for the film as their contracts hadn’t been renewed. They were appeased with $1,000 a piece and the production resumed.
A giant Victor Mature appears in the sky like a b-movie monster, and the Monkees end up back in the box again. A helicopter drops it off in the desert, where it breaks open. The Monkees face a line of extras from the film who chase them until Giant Victor hits the Monkees with a golf club and whacks them back into the back lot. There’s more chasing, wacky clips, a silent movie/Keystone Cop bit where they’re on the conveyor belt, Vietnam clips paired with TV commercials. The Monkees try to escape in a yellow jeep but Victor kicks it over. Genius editing.
The Monkees wind up back at the bridge opening ceremony, chased by the supporting cast. This time they all jump off the bridge and into the water. “The Porpoise Song” re-plays for their symbolic suicide as they sink. Ultimately, they end up trapped in the black box which is now a fish tank, symbolic of their celebrity lives in front of the Media. Victor Mature, the personification of the forces acting on the Monkees, sits in a director’s chair on the back of a truck that drives the tank away. Presumably back to the studio to “do this all over again.” Credits.
Rafelson did of course go on to do other films. Head was just the beginning of “new Hollywood.” He went on to produce Easy Rider, and the success of that film gave birth to BBS Productions. He directed Five Easy Pieces (for which both he and Nicholson were nominated for Oscars), Stay Hungry, and The Postman Always Rings Twice. He produced those films as well as Easy Rider, and The Last Picture Show. Nicholson went on to be, well you know, Jack Nicholson.
Though Rafelson used his Monkees money to finance his films, Head was a flop at the time; the film made less than $20,000 at the box office. It does seem like no one was especially interested in the film being popular, considering the weird trailer/ad campaign created by (Andy Warhol Factory) producer John Brockman. The ads featured his “head,” though he’s only actually in the film for a few seconds during a clip montage. It would be hard to tell this had anything to do with The Monkees. None of their hit songs were used in the film, it had all original music.
I can see why they had trouble gaining an audience at first. For a Monkees fan the non-commercial nature of the film might not be so appealing. An avant-garde film buff might not have been into the Monkees. Since the theatrical release however, it seems the film has achieved cult status. I can certainly see it working well as a cult film; it fits in with the Midnight Movie set. It took me a few viewings to get into it, but the film is funny; a different kind of humor from the series, but I get a few chuckles out of it for sure.
Thanks again to everyone who’s been reading this and all the recaps of the show!
by Bronwyn Knox
Every couple of weeks, “Monkees vs. Macheen” examined the crazy, spirited, Ben Franks-type world of the Pre-Fab Four: David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, and Peter Tork alias The Monkees.