Head (1968) offered itself as a satirical, musical adventure film. It starred four television actors, collectively known as The Monkees, and was directed by Bob Rafelson, a co-creator of the aforementioned TV show, and a man who would go on to help create the New Hollywood.
The above paragraph is linear, informative with a satisfying progression. The film itself is the opposite – and it’s a major reason that it works, enduring where a hundred other rock group films from the 1960s are embedded under the sands of time. Great rock band films are even more scarce than great rock bands.
Head is absurdly meta (decades ahead of its time), and aggressively postmodern in that it questions the possibility – and pursuit – of reliable information (fake news is not a recent phenomenon). Who really knows what’s happening? Or as writer William Goldman famously said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.” Such a proposition is timeless and can be applied across the globe.
One thing for certain is that Head effectively terminated the Monkees’ careers.
Originally, the film was called Changes. It was retitled Head, both as a drug reference and to enable the producers’ new film, Easy Rider, to be marketed with the slogan “From the guys who gave you Head”. Nice. The studio didn’t like it.
Rafelson co-wrote the script with soon-to-be-star-actor Jack Nicholson. It has been strongly suggested that Jack structured the scenes while under the influence of LSD. No surprise there.
The film goes after corporate greed, the military establishment, the Vietnam War, television, advertising, the corruption of individual against a backdrop of mindless commercialism, and the Monkees themselves. A few of the Monkees later believed that Rafelson had grown tired of his TV stars and wanted to kill off the enterprise with a psychedelic paint bomb. The film was a financial disaster – yet has since become a cult favorite, praised by people like Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright. Monkee Mickey Dolenz once said, “Most of our fans couldn’t get in [the theatres] because there was an age restriction and the intelligentsia wouldn’t go to see it anyway because they hated the Monkees.” His bandmate Davy Jones felt Rafelson and Nicholson were just “practicing their film techniques. They were throwing us to the ‘gators at that point.”
Head has attitude, a knowingness absent from the Beatles’ films and other rock-around-the-clock cinematic sparks. Certainly there are those West Coast hippy-dippy vibes, but there’s also a pervasive deconstructionism: you can best understand the film in the context of its opposite – in this case, classic story-telling structures as applied to feature films. In Head, the forth wall isn’t just broken, it’s pulverized. If pressed to explain what the film is actually about, a debatable response is ‘escape’ – the Monkees suffer existential angst – and man, they gotta escape the box, they just gotta move.
The TV show, The Monkees, was envisioned as the Marx Brothers meet the Beatles. It was goofy fun. But in Head, the big Panavision cameras get up so close that the four pre-fabs somehow develop more profound, expansive characters. It’s unexpected and unsettling – thereby assisting the Alice in Wonderland mojo.
With Head, The Monkees received redemption, tossing antiseptic teen-dreams into a burbling lava lamp, escaping Hollywood’s geodesic protection to breathe the clean air of freedom, just once, before self-annihilation. Not a bad way to go.