By the time Head was released in 1968, Monkees mania had all but died out. Their television show, a good-natured and often surreal mix of irreverent humor such as the Beatles had mastered in the films A Hard Days’ Night and Help!, had just been cancelled. In an age where the boundaries of pop music were being stretched every time you switched on the radio (the Beatles went from “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to “Strawberry Fields Forever” in just over two years), the Monkees seemed too much of a novelty, too much a media creation designed to sell records when art was prized over artifice – the exact opposite of the artless ’90s.
Head is a remarkable pop culture artifact, subversive in ways that still seem gutsy (as the Beatles, particularly when managed by Brian Epstein, were not allowed to be). The film uses the Monkees’ manufactured image as a springboard for a surprisingly sharp satire on the media that spawned them. Depending on which story you believe, the screenplay by director Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) was either thrown together arbitrarily or carefully crafted by Nicholson to illustrate the theories of prescient media guru Marshall McLuhan. Regardless of intent, the result has merit.
The film is ostensibly a 90-minute extension of the TV show, a breathless, rapidly edited series of scenes satirizing the potluck of genres found in television’s late night graveyards: westerns, war movies, horror films, etc. Costumes and sets change with a breathless rapidity reminiscent of the “war” scenes from the Marx Brother’s Duck Soup. But from the beginning, there is an attempt to establish the Monkees as a fraud, a plastic creation of a media-obsessed society poised on the brink of decadence and apathy, a culture where pop music idols end up no more significant than Victor Mature’s dandruff. Indeed, there is much newsreel footage here of the Vietnam war, and the frightening image of a man being shot point blank in the head, execution-style, reoccurs in this G-rated film enough to remind the audience just what was at stake when people’s attentions were distracted by escapism.
Notable scenes include one with a major nod to Jean-Luc Godard (who once called the youth generation of the sixties “the children of Marx and Coca Cola”). In it, Mickey Dolenz blows up a Coke machine in the desert after it has swallowed his last coin. What better sign of mindless consumerism, apart from a Monkee? In another scene, Davy Jones receives feedback from the late, great Frank Zappa, who tells Davy he’s “pretty white” and that he should concentrate more on his music than his dancing. Keep in mind, this film was made for kids – I was 12 when first confounded by it (on a double bill with Yellow Submarine) – and while much of it seems silly on that count, at its worst it’s just psychedelic slapstick. At its best it’s downright alarming, and perhaps the closest mainstream Hollywood ever came to the such essay films by Godard as Two or Three Things I know About Her. Is Head any less of a lucid comment on its culture?
There are a few things here that are hard to swallow completely (Davy Jones singing anything taxes one’s gag reflex), but such moments don’t consume much screen time, and most of it is fun to look at. My favorite scene is a satire on inhuman industrialization, not too different in spirit from Chaplin’s Modern Times or, perhaps more accurately, Rene Clair’s A Nous la Liberte. The Monkees, being shown a weird factory by one of the authority figures they play off of so well, are told about the future and of the new economy where the main occupation will be to amuse oneself. “The tragedy of your times, my young friends,” he says, “is that you may get exactly what you want.” Truer words were never spoken. Head? It should have been called Balls.