We see the heel turn coming a mile away nowadays. Whenever a prefab pop artist blows up, it’s only a matter of time before they pivot into their I Gotta Be Me phase. Lurking in the heart of every chaste Disney pop starlet and boy band member is a singer eager to dry-hump the Billboard charts with a raunchy song about how grown and sexy they are. Throw in a couple of wry guest appearances on SNL, a few self-effacing Yes, We’re All In On The Joke, None Of This Is Real And It’s All In Good Fun winks to the audience at MTV award shows and late night talk show appearances, and the transformation from Manufactured Teen Sensation to Legit Adult Artist is complete.
Unfortunately for The Monkees, Justified wouldn’t come out until 2002. There was no Justin Timberlake in 1968 to show them how to go from prefab to just plain fab. So when the quartet of Davy Jones, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Micky Dolenz dropped Head (their first and only theatrical film), it was a commercial and critical bomb of such epic proportions that it annihilated the band—leaving them burnt into the culture landscape as atomic shadows.
It was a film that was doomed to please no one: the band’s loyal teenybopper fan base were horrified by Head’s goofy psychedelia and batshit surrealism, while all the snarky, hip heads out there who’d dig it wouldn’t be caught dead watching a Monkees movie. Hell, Frank Zappa (snarkiest and hippest of heads) was in the damn movie and looked like he would have sold all of The Mothers Of Invention to organ thieves if that would’ve gotten him the hell off-screen.
If Brockhampton were to release a film collaboration with Alejandro Jodorowsky in 2018, people would be down with it; in a poptimist era where Madonna acolytes can wear meat dresses, embracing your inner Frank Reynolds and getting Real Weird With It is basically part of the job description. In 1968, nobody expected or wanted their “manufactured” pop stars to get THIS weird.
And boy howdy, is Head a weird fucking film.
While there are certain reoccurring themes and locations and characters in Head, there isn’t a story line in the conventional sense. The film openly mocks the idea of continuity, character consistency, and even dramatic stakes. It jumps from genre to genre, shifting from a war movie to a boxing drama to an Astaire-Rogers dance movie. Like a kid with ADHD hogging the remote, Head never lingers in one place or time for too long before getting the itch to see what else is on.
While it’s a wildly disjointed film, it’s packed with memorable sequences: the intro where a frantic Micky hurls himself off a bridge and falls into the arms of psychedelic mermaids as Gerry Goffin & Carole King’s beautiful “Porpoise Song” plays; Peter Tork hopping into a trench in the middle of a Vietnam firefight and getting tackled by a football player; Dolenz stumbling onto a Coke machine in the desert and hooting and dancing angrily around it like it’s one of the obelisks from 2001; the band as pieces of dandruff getting sucked into a vacuum; Dolenz (and later Tork) going on a punching rampage in the middle of a boxing ring; a frightened Jones discovering a huge eye gazing back at him when he opens a bathroom cabinet; and a stunning dance number where Jones and Toni Basil (yes, THAT Basil — NOT dancing with oh-so-fine-it-blows-my-mind Micky, unfortunately) do a pas de deux with the camera cutting between two different color/costume schemes. The way their costumes and backdrops shift from black being the dominant color to white makes it seem like the B&W is dancing with them.
There’s even a brief homage to Clifford Odets’ play Golden Boy as Davy Jones plays a violinist who convinces his weeping girlfriend that he has to follow his dream to be a boxer (and promptly gets the ever-loving shit beat out of him by Sonny Liston).
While the structure of the film feels formless at first, certain things begin to reoccur: the Monkees keep getting trapped in boxes; characters they disrupt in other sequences end up reappearing and chasing them off the bridge at the end; some of them even get trapped at certain locations for awhile (like Davy, who spends a decent chunk of time losing his shit over that eye in the bathroom cabinet).
Although it wouldn’t come out until 1972, Head shares some structural similarities with Luis Bunuel’s Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoise. For starters, both films feature dream-within-a-dream sequences where the narrative briefly gets hijacked by a minor character’s dream (in Head’s case, “The Cop’s Dream”). And both films use denial as the fuel that powers their films’ engines: in Discreet Charm, the film throws up one roadblock after another to keep its characters from sitting down to enjoy a meal. They get so desperate to eat something, anything, that Fernando Rey gets himself killed (in a dream) by reaching out to grab some ham in the middle of a gunfight.
Head works in a similar way: it refuses to give The Monkees what they want most. Whereas Bunuel’s doomed bourgeois just wanna eat, The Monkees want to escape. These are characters who are aware that they’re in a movie and want to get out: look at how Micky freaks out during the F Troop scene and storms out, walking through the backdrop into the studio lot, or listen to the frustration in Tork’s voice when he sings “Do I have to do this all over again?” They want to escape, but keep finding themselves getting locked in boxes or returning to scenes they thought they had gotten away from.
The symbolism of the boxes is pretty obvious: The Monkees were already notorious for feeling hemmed in and constricted by their status as a TV pop band (and for not being considered a “real” group despite the fact they could write songs and play their own instruments). But the boxes take on an almost Platonic significance in Head. Like the enlightened man in Plato’s Myth Of The Cave, only the Monkees are aware that every scene they’re in is fake. They escape the scene, the box, the Cave, only to end up in yet ANOTHER scene, another box, another Cave. They flee from one manufactured reality to another. And just like how Plato’s Myth warns that those who see the truth (that everything happening in the cave that is “real” is just a shadowplay) will be ostracized and attacked by the people who believe in what they’re seeing, The Monkees get chased after and attacked by all the actors/characters they ignore, abuse, or mess around with throughout the film. Everyone else is trying to stay on script while the four Monkees keep going “man, fuck this shit,” and eventually that attitude gets them chased off a bridge… into yet another box. The ocean they jump into to escape is just another box. Bunuel’s protagonists will never eat and The Monkees will never escape from Head.
That playful meta aspect and cynical attitude helps keep Head feel fresh. There’s some anti-war sequences and psychedelic moments in the film that feel very of their time, but Head is a film that can’t stay serious for too long. It keeps throwing in jokes and goofy non sequiturs. It winks at you, but in a way that is discomfiting. It isn’t like a pop star on SNL clowning on themselves; this is a film that feels like it’s casting barbs at you specifically. You, who expected those nice Monkee boys and got this crazy goddamn thing instead. Or you over there, who thinks the Monkees are just half-assed Beatles clones with a red wool cap thrown on top: wink-wink and fuck you too.
Peter Tork gets in some of the best meta-digs, like when he advises Davy with a bit of walk & talk wisdom: “Nobody ever lends money to a man with a sense of humor” (jokes on you for funding this movie, suckers! Try getting your $790,000 back now!). Or when Tork, after slugging a woman, tells his director “The kids aren’t going to dig this.” The understatement of 1968, Pete.
It’s no wonder Head got put into the guillotine in 1968. People were expecting A Hard Day’s Night and they got Brecht. Instead of escapist pop fare, they got a film that was literally about trying to escape from pop. In 2018, nobody would blink at this: everybody’s trying to run from their past. Nothing screams authenticity like throwing away the plastic wrap you came packaged in. But in 1968 the kind of musical pop stardom The Monkees had was still too new for them to pull off a move like this. Even when The Beatles went meta and made druggy movies, it didn’t feel like they were actively trying to destroy the very idea of The Beatles. And if they had done something as radical as Head, people would have accepted it as a Big Statement from a Serious Artist.
But The Monkees weren’t Serious Artists to the public. They were tchotchkes, bubblegum, Saturday morning cartoons. Bubblegum doesn’t have a soul, doesn’t get to have a tortured inner life. Bazooka Joe is here to make you laugh (maybe), not make you feel bad he’s trapped in a gum wrapper telling Dad Jokes for all eternity.
“Well, if it isn’t God’s gift to the eight-year-olds,” a waitress says to The Monkees with a smirk when they pop by her diner. Head was the band’s way of telling God, their fans, and everyone else that they wouldn’t be waiting under any teenybopper’s Christmas tree anymore. They had to go find themselves, focus on their acting careers, release solo country music albums, and swim with the laughing porpoises. “Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye,” Dolenz sings at the BEGINNING of Head. That already tells you everything you need to know.