FANTASIA OBSCURA: How the Monkees Ended the Monkees Onscreen

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, it’s like the old song goes: You say goodbye, and I say hello…

Head (1968)

(Dist.: Columbia Pictures; Dir.: Bob Rafelson)

It’s hard to really think of Head as obscure, as the movie has a pretty big outsized reputation. The Monkees’ sole theatrical film, the inevitable end result of where Rafelson’s desire to make A Hard Day’s Night as a television series would lead, plays a pretty big role in the band’s mythology, with a side mythology dedicated to the film itself and what it tried to do. But with REBEAT’s current celebration of the golden anniversary of the Monkees going on now, it’s hard not to think again of the film, even if it’s not that obscure.

Or is it? Ask yourself; out of curiosity, when was the last time you’ve actually seen the film? And have you seen it recently…?

Summarizing the flick would be pointless, of course, by design. The script that came out of a long weekend in Ojai, where the members of the band, Rafelson, and screenwriter Jack Nicholson talked into a tape recorder, was a hard distillation of random bits that just seemed like it’d be fun to do. The musical number towards the beginning of the film, “Ditty Diego,” pretty well sums up that the film is about nothing, foregoing narrative flow and order just because, even as the review ends with the infamous footage of General Ngoc executing a Vet Cong prisoner:

From there, we go into the musical numbers and sketches, many of those self-referential about the Monkees being a manufactured band for a television show. In fact, the film often plays like an extended outing of the show, despite the effort to try not to be just another episode, one where the writing room went mad, the director was distracted, and NBC’s Standards & Practices Group was tasking acid the whole time, from pre-production to air.

With regards to the music, much of what’s part of the film tends not get the same attention that earlier parts of the Monkees’ output garnish. There’s a selection of decent numbers in the film, three out of those seven being written by the Monkees themselves, including “Circle Sky” which is performed live for an audience early in the flick. Of special note, though, is the Harry Nilsson-penned “Daddy’s Song,” which is practically a show stopper for the production, not just for the cross-cuts between two approaches to the number that were filmed and spliced together, but the a cappella rendering of the last verse on a bare set that gives the song additional poignancy:

With the numbers and the self-referential gags shot at the audience at a rapid pace, the theme of this theoretical overall episode would be, “That’s it, the show’s over.” Which was pretty much the case by then; during production of the film, NBC cancelled the series in March of 1968, with “The Frodis Caper” being the last episode shown on the network. As by then the series had abandoned the canned laughter and smashed the Fourth Wall regularly, a departure from what NBC expected the show to be and stay had there been a third season, it shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise when the film was released what people got.

What sets it apart from an episode of the series, though? Was it not having commercial breaks, nor content and subject restrictions that made up network TV at the time? Was it that the film was able to include appearances by the likes of Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Annette Funacello, Teri Garr, and especially Victor Mature (loving every minute on screen with a smile as big as his biceps), as well as walk-ons by Toni Basil, Dennis Hopper, and Nicholson himself?

What sets it apart was the self-awareness from the Monkees that the show was killing them, and that Jones, Dolenz, Tork, and especially Nesmith just wanted out. There are discussions and snide asides from and between them about how little fun they were having, how bouncing from scene to scene on the backlot was just making them tired of the whole experience. Even during the fun times, such as watching belly dancers in a sheik’s tent or performing for a crowd in Utah, there’s the undercurrent that this high point in context is just a momentary respite amidst the craziness; when this is over, it’s back to the grind.

This attitude of deconstruction for the sake of liberation, professional as opposed to personal (which Nicholson covered in his other script for The Trip), proved to be turn off for the audience that went to see the film. Delayed in post-production, reportedly by the extensive use of the Sabaitter effect for many sequences, the film premiered in October of 1968, seven months after the show’s first run ended and unable to harness any residual goodwill that being on TV would have given them. Their reputations as manufactured product firmly in the heads of the general audience, the Monkees could not encourage an audience to see them share that sentiment and laugh at themselves for it, keeping the audience that would have most enjoyed the film at home.

As for the first faithful who regularly watched the show, the fans of the series, people who would have recently heard about Mi Lai on the evening news, the film would have seemed a chaotic mess, an assault on their senses as well as their core beliefs, something so hard to process that they just could not watch for another second without feeling drained or challenged to the point of pain.

For the later faithful who had chances to watch the show, however, the fans of the series, people who would have recently heard about Fallujah in their news feeds, the film would unfold like Facebook on a Tuesday evening, about 7:30 PM local time. The quick cuts and requirements that the viewer had to keep up with would not have phased them, as they watched an early version of McLuhan’s “global village” unfold in a way that seemed very civil to anyone who had brushed up against a flame war on 8chan recently.

Rafelson, for his part, was not considering new ways that we share information in the future; according to Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, he was trying more to emulate Fellini’s 8 ½ in an effort to shake up how Hollywood did business. And to an extent, he succeeded; by getting the green light for the Monkees’ final venture before all those break-ups within the band came along, he capitalized on the connections he made from that to get Columbia Pictures to back his next project, Five Easy Pieces, starring Nicholson (who decided that acting was a better use of his talents than screenwriting in the final analysis). In doing this, the bones of Head (the skull?) became part of the ground the new Hollywood of the 1970s was built on; Altman, Coppola, Friedkin and Spielberg, all ultimately owe their entre into the establishment to Jones, Dolenz, Tork, and Nesmith.

And if nothing else, then at the least, this film is far, far more watchable than Magical Mystery Tour ended up being.

NEXT TIME: The desire for a summer blockbuster can drive even the best of creators down a road that was at least supposed to be paved with good intentions…

About James Ryan 125 Articles
James Ryan is still out there on the loose. He’s responsible for the novels Raging Gail and Red Jenny and the Pirates of Buffalo, as well as the popular history The Pirates of New York. He has also been spotted associating with the publications Pyramid Online, Dragon, The Urbanite, The Dream Zone, Rational Magic, and Rooftop Sessions. He has been spotted too often in the vicinity of Kinja. Should you meet him, proceed with caution. He is to be considered disarming and slightly dangerous…
  • Guy Smiley

    HEAD is a brilliant, underrated, psychedelic gem. Of course it’s better than Magical Mystery Tour. Hell, I like it better than ALL of the Beatles films… Yes, even more than A Hard Day’s Night or Yellow Submarine.

    But you really didn’t give the film’s music its due. NO mention of “Porpoise Song”?? Easily the best Monkees foray into psychedelia. “As We Go Along” is simply beautiful, and for another group, not buried away in a film that couldn’t find its audience, it would’ve been a huge hit single.

    “Circle Sky” is a power rocker that proves the group’s chops as it’s played LIVE by the four Monkees themslves, and let’s not dismiss Tork’s two contributions (especially “Do I Have To Do This All Over Again”) either. The group’s best album was probably Pisces, but I’d argue the six proper songs on the HEAD soundtrack are six of the very best songs The Monkees ever recorded.

    Also, a correction: Rafelson’s “next project” after HEAD was not Five Easy Pieces… It was a little movie called Easy Rider (a movie financed with Monkee Millions).