The made-for-TV musical group's surrealistic 1968 film, penned by
Jack Nicholson, got no love at the box office, but American
Cinematheque has resurrected it.
By Susan King
November 12, 2008
Forty years ago, the Monkees' only feature film, "Head," hit theaters
-- and people have been scratching their heads ever since.
Though far from a masterpiece like the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night"
from 1964, the film, starring Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz
and Michael Nesmith, is a surreal time capsule -- a psychedelic,
stream-of-consciousness blast from the past. It's as if Jean Cocteau
had consumed lots of LSD and decided to make a rock movie. Only its
true history is a lot trippier, considering that Jack Nicholson wrote
the script and a motley crew of the era's icons appears in the film.
Tonight, the American Cinematheque's '60s-centric "Mods and Rockers"
series will present a 40th anniversary screening of "Head," featuring
Tork and Jones, plus other cast and crew members, in person.
When "Head" was released theatrically in November 1968, the Monkees
could not have been less hip, admits Martin Lewis, the "Mods and
Rockers" producer who's hosting the event.
"With the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy,
and the riots in Chicago, Paris and London, everything was very
serious," Lewis says of the time. "Suddenly, though it had only been
two years since the Monkees were created, it seemed like 20 years."
The Emmy Award-winning NBC sitcom "The Monkees," which followed the
zany adventures of a struggling rock 'n' roll band in Los Angeles,
had been canceled earlier that year.
Though the Monkees had scored numerous hits, including "Last Train to
Clarksville," "Daydream Believer" and "I'm a Believer," their
teeny-bopper fans were no longer buying their records. The
counterculture was thriving. People were turning on and tuning in.
Hendrix, Joplin and the Who were zooming up the charts.
So "Head" was a major bomb. The film had critics perplexed.
Teeny-boppers didn't understand it, and those who considered
themselves remotely hip wouldn't have been caught dead going to a
movie with the "Prefab Four," as the Monkees were mockingly called.
A bad rap
Tork doesn't necessarily think the film failed because the Monkees were passé.
"The TV show had this huge ad campaign, and everybody went for all
the hype," says Tork. "The 'Head' campaign was designed to be
Postmodernist, and the commercials were off-putting. The hip thought
it was going to be another bubble-gum movie, and they didn't want to
see it. And the bubble-gum kids thought it was going to be a
freak-out movie, and they didn't want to see it. I think if the movie
had been thoroughly promoted in an appropriate way, it would have
done much better."
Surprisingly enough, "Head" has quite the pedigree. It was directed
by Bob Rafelson and produced by Bert Schneider, who also did the TV
series. And it was written and produced by none other than Nicholson,
who also makes a brief appearance in the movie. (Two years later, the
three would collaborate on the classic drama "Five Easy Pieces.")
Also popping up in "Head" are Frank Zappa, surgically enhanced
stripper Carol Doda, Dennis Hopper, Annette Funicello, Victor Mature,
boxer Sonny Liston and even Teri Garr, who is billed as "Terry Garr."
The film itself, which spoofs movie genres, is definitely out there.
At one point, the Monkees find themselves akin to pieces of dandruff
in Mature's wavy black hair.
Dolenz jokes that he still doesn't understand the film, "and I was in
it. . . . I don't think anybody knows what it is about."
He recalls Rafelson approaching him during the second season of the
TV series about doing a movie. "I vaguely remember a conversation
about what we would want to do and not want to do," says Dolenz. "I
remember the general consensus was that we don't want to make a
90-minute episode of 'The Monkees.'
"In retrospect, that would have been much more commercially
successful. On the other hand, we wouldn't have this wonderful, very
bizarre film floating around now, which I am very proud of. I think I
did some great work as an actor in the movie."
Rafelson introduced the group to Nicholson, who had written scripts
before but nothing on an "A"-movie level.
"We hit it off with Jack famously, because he was and still is such a
charismatic, intelligent and funny guy," Dolenz recalls.
For the next few months, Nicholson hung out on the show's set and
visited the four at their homes, "just soaking up everything that was
Monkee," Dolenz says. Then one weekend, he, Nicholson, Schneider and
Rafelson spent a week at a golf resort brainstorming their concepts
for the film into a tape recorder. "Jack took those tapes away with
him and wrote the screenplay."
Though the film is 40 years old, "Head" doesn't seem dated, by
"There were a lot of movies about hippies [made then] getting turned
on and all that stuff," he says. "Today, if you look at them, you
sort of cringe in embarrassment when somebody drives by in a VW bus
painted with flowers and goes, 'Groovy.' "
The counterculture era wasn't really like that, Dolenz says. "It was
all very cerebral. It wasn't all about the trappings, the flowers and
the bell-bottoms. It was more of what was going on inside of
everybody's mind. They managed to capture the moment."
And that leads Lewis to conclude that, if the Monkees had been
unknowns when "Head" premiered, the film might have fared better.
"If it had been introduced as a low-key, underground movie, it might
have hit with the hip audience, who were looking for films against
the commercial grain," he says. "It might have actually struck a
chord with them."
King is a Times staff writer.