Tune In: The Psychedelic Film Experience: Head (1968)

Tune In: The Psychedelic Film Experience continues with Brian Gregory reviewing The Monkees far out feature film Head (1968) starring Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz and directed by Bob Rafelson.

Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith and Mickey Dolenz were The Monkees, the band created by producer Bob Rafelson for the hit television series of the same name. A fabricated American version of The Beatles, with imagery, songs and zany humour based on the Fab four’s hit films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! With its vague whiff of anti-establishment air and superbly crafted songs (all written by top song-writers such as Neil Diamond) The Monkees TV show and recording act were huge in 1967.

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However, by 1968, the cracks were already showing. After a whirl-wind year where they attended the Sergeant Pepper sessions at Abbey Road, toured with Jimi Hendrix and sampled Swinging London, the four Monkees had experienced the very centre of the pop and counter-cultural revolution. Talented musicians and singers in their own right, they craved the chance to write their own songs and play on their own tracks. Of course, this was the last thing that the studios wanted to hear and inevitably led to several huge rows with Producer Bob Rafelson and the TV executives. Yet, out of this chaos came Rafelson’s idea for a Monkees movie (according to Mickey Dolenz, this was to put an end to both the band and the TV show so that Rafelson could pursue his life-long dream of being a Hollywood film-director).

Rafelson felt that the true story of The Monkees ‘experiment’ would best be told in abstract form and introduced the band to up-coming writer/B-movie actor, Jack Nicholson. Nicholson and the band hit it off immediately and after hanging around the TV studios and concerts, Jack and the band spent time together in a Californian hotel room for lengthy writing sessions. This basically involved the guys smoking a lot of pot and recording their ideas and conversations into a tape recorder (I’d love to hear those tapes!). Nicholson then constructed a screenplay out of the recordings (mainly while tripping on LSD according to Rafelson).

Head would be the movie where the celluloid Monkees attempted to escape the constraints of that little black box that had brought them into the world’s living-rooms, along with the very studio system that had created them.

Much like the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour from the previous year, there is no discernable plot to Head. The film instead consists of a series of vignettes all linked together in a seemingly random stream of consciousness, a Head trip. Indeed, according to both Nicholson and Rafelson, the whole film was set in Victor Mature’s hair! It’s a movie that manages to mock the Vietnam War, America, advertising, television, the music business and The Monkees themselves. Daring, knowing and self-aware, Head is packed full of psychedelic imagery, wit, incredibly creative editing and a batch of fantastic songs, much of which were written by the band themselves.

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The film’s cast memorably included the aforementioned Victor Mature as ‘Big Victor’ (a poke at RCA Victor who released The Monkees records and owned the TV show), musician Frank Zappa and even Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson themselves. Rafelson wanted to include people who he felt the public would associate with the band. So Timothy Carey (the crazy guy who had been outlawed by everybody), Annette Funicello (Miss Mickey Mouse Club herself), Carol Doda (the first topless dancer) and Sonny Liston (the disgraced boxer), all appeared. Rafelson: ‘It was a sort of chorus of losers, of people with bad reputations, who I personally liked, to the same degree that I liked The Monkees.’

The film begins and ends with perhaps the best song of the movie, the magical ‘Porpoise Song’ written by no less than Carole King. These impressive sequences feature the band beautifully shot underwater while framed in a kaleidoscope of acidic colours using techniques that two hired ex-UCL students created. The startling visuals were achieved by layering three black and white negatives together and then impacting them each with colour, a technique that hadn’t been used on 35mm film before. ‘Daddy’s Song’, written by Harry Nilsson, features a Davy Jones’ song and dance routine that Rafelson ingeniously filmed entirely on a white stage (with the dancers in black) and then entirely on a black stage (with the dancers in white) before cutting between the two every two or three frames in the editing suite. The results are both highly innovative and extremely rewarding. Other highlights include Nesmith’s satirical anti-war track ‘Circle Sky’, Dolenz’s superb vocal on the wonderfully dreamy ‘As we go along’ and Tork’s high energy ‘Do we have to do this all over again?’ (which was used in the very 60’s psychedelic club sequence.) Ditty Diego-War Chant! , written by Jack Nicholson, sums up the entire film and sees the band critically self-analyse themselves as ‘a manufactured image with no philosophies.’

There are some very memorable scenes among the plethora of film-genres scattered throughout this heady psychedelic marvel. Davy Jones meets Frank Zappa (holding a cow) who sarcastically informs him that ‘the youth of America depend on the band to show the way’, while also accurately observing that the song Davy had just performed (Daddy’s Song) was ‘pretty white’. Mike Nesmith sardonically announces that Christmas is cancelled to a group of shocked teen-ravers, Peter Tork walks into a scene whistling The Beatles ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and a cowboy Mickey Dolenz is shot with arrows, which he then pulls out, walks straight through the backdrop scenery, and bemoans the artificiality of the very filming process he is involved in. Relentlessly pursuing the band throughout the whole film, like a giant corporate Terminator, is of course the omnipresence of Big Victor!

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Posters for the film (part of an interesting but commercially disastrous marketing campaign) suicidally didn’t even mention The Monkees! Instead, the poster read: ‘What is Head all about? Only John Brockman’s shrink knows for sure!’ (Brockman was a fairly well-know media theorist at the time). Any audience for Head was already almost non-existent due to the film’s age restriction precluding many Monkees fans from cinemas, while (despite its cutting satire and intelligence) the intellectuals and counter-culture gave the movie a wide-berth due to their hate of the plastic, manufactured nature of the band and TV show.

So, did the band ever escape their metaphoric ‘black-box’, either on film or in real-life? Well, at the end of Head, despite all their attempts to truly express themselves and escape their artificially constructed constraints, the band are seen trapped in another black box (resembling a giant fish tank) which is driven away in the possession of a very content, Big Victor.

‘’Most people are dazzled by the psychedelia, and that’s fine, but for me the point of the movie is The Monkees never get out,’’ commented Peter Tork in 2011.

Despite flopping massively on release, Head receives very positive reviews today and interest in this psychedelic odd-ball has remained high. Unlike any pop-cultural film before or since, it’s a movie so crammed full of youthful energy and cinematic innovation that, despite effectively ending the band’s career, it ironically ended up giving them the credibility that they’d always wanted. Head is a movie that is both a head of its time and ahead of its time.

FMV Rating *****

Tune In: The Psychedelic Film Experience spaces out as Tim Wickens looks at Jane Fonda in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968).



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