A look at the Monkees’ underrated psychedelic classic at 50
It was 1968, and the Monkees were in freefall. The previous year had been one of astonishing success for the prefabricated four — a hit TV series, three albums that remained on the top of the charts for a total of over six months — but the bloom was now off the rose. Their first single of the new year, “Valleri,” reached No. 3, but it would be their last single to reach the Top 10. Similarly, the album The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, reached No. 3; it would be their last to hit the Top 30. More ominously, when NBC announced their schedule for the 1968 fall season on February 20, The Monkees was not listed. It was a decision that cast a shadow over the group’s next project, the feature film Head, which had just begun shooting the day before.
By the time Head opened in November 1968, The Monkees had been off the air since the previous March, and the group’s core audience of teeny-boppers had long since moved on. Though Monkee Michael Nesmith had predicted to UK weekly the New Musical Express that “our film is going to astound the world,” the reviews were abysmal. The movie was further hampered by what might be termed an anti-advertising campaign, the promotional materials making no mention of the fact that Head was a movie starring the Monkees. The film ended up tanking (earning a paltry $16,111 on its first release), and by the end of the year Peter Tork had left the group. Nesmith would leave the following year. The remaining members, Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, squeezed out one final album in 1970 (Changes), then surrendered to the inevitable as well.
Or so it seemed. But reissues and reunions have kept the Monkees on the pop culture radar (though there’s still no Rock Hall induction — yet). And Head, of course, went on to achieve cult film status. And deservedly so. In the long and chequered history of rock movies, Head is a cut above most. There’s no proper storyline; the film is a series of seemingly unrelated sketches. It’s a satiric romp, primarily poking fun at the entertainment industry and the Monkees’ phenomenon itself, depicting them as victims of their own fame (“Well, if it isn’t God’s gift to the 8-year-old!” a waitress sneers at the group in one scene). There are some pointed topical references as well; in one startling jump cut, footage of the execution of Viet Cong officer Nguyễn Văn Lém is immediately followed by a tight headshot of a teenage girl screaming — at a Monkees concert.
And unlike the vast majority of rock movies that are not documentaries, the music is actually good as well. The soundtrack mixes together seven songs with snippets of film dialogue, with three of the songs being bonafide Monkees classics. The opening “Porpoise Song (These from Head),” from the Gerry Goffin/Carole King songwriting team, is a dreamy, hallucinogenic number, one that went on to be something of a cult classic in its own right, covered by the likes of Bongwater, Django Django, and the Church, and used to startling effect in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky when Tom Cruise is in the throes of a mental breakdown. Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” is a terrifically propulsive jangly guitar number, well used in the film’s concert sequence. Harry Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song” treads the same thematic territory as “1941,” that of a son coping with being abandoned by his father. Though Nesmith originally hoped to take the lead vocal, it was given to Jones and turned into an elaborately edited song-and-dance piece, alternating shots of Jones dancing in a black suit, and a white suit (trivia: the woman dancing with him is dancer/choreographer Toni Basil).
Tork contributes two of his best Monkees numbers, “Can You Dig It” and “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again,” and Dolenz takes the lead on the contemplative “As We Go Along” (co-written by Carole King and her future Tapestry co-writer, Toni Stern). As a final fillip, the spoken word piece “Ditty Diego – War Chant” (co-written by the film’s director/co-producer/co-screenwriter Bob Rafelson and co-producer/co-screenwriter Jack Nicholson; yes that Jack Nicholson) delightfully skewers the TV show’s own theme song, joyously concluding:
Hey, hey, we are the Monkees!
We’ve said it all before
The money’s in, we’re made of tin,
We’re here to give you more!
The Monkees always knew they were grist for the pop culture mill, the very medium that gave them birth (television) making them instantly disposable. When Head was released, critics accused the group of taking themselves too seriously, but in fact they were poking fun at themselves in a way they weren’t able to do on the TV show, having a good laugh at their own expense. And as Head’s longevity has shown, they ended up having the last laugh as well.