Friday, October 19, 2007

Too much to dream: the Monkees' HEAD

One of the more bizarre artifacts from the 60s is on display tonight on Turner Classic Movies Underground film series: The Monkees' very weird, trippy HEAD (1968), which must be seen to be believed.

The Monkees were, as you probably know, prefabricated teenybopper idols manufactured in Hollywood. They were also (yes, I admit it!) beloved by your humble narrator, whilst still a scruffy, rust-belt ragamuffin, subsisting mostly on TV-dinners and Velveeta cheese. The Monkees mass-marketed bubblegum cards fit right in with the Velveeta. One memory I have of the fourth grade: my tiny bedroom mirror lined with Mike, Peter, Davy and Micky, smelling faintly of bubblegum.

American culture shifted very suddenly during that era. The prefab Monkees took LSD and became conscious beings. Subsequently, they decided to make a movie with Jack Nicholson about what it's like to be conscious beings, while also experiencing major intergalactic teenybopper mega-fame at the same time. You have to admit, that's something else!

In HEAD, you get all manner of bizarre acidhead-slapstick repartee, later perfected by the Firesign-Theatre, and other 70s comedy troupes. There are several blatantly Beatlesesque musical knock-offs, one memorably accompanied by a psychedelic underwater swimming sequence. From Jeff Stafford at TCM:

Initially called Untitled, HEAD was an unconventional project from the beginning. According to author Patrick McGilligan in Jack's Life: A Biography of Jack Nicholson, "Bob [Rafelson, director], Bert [Schneider, executive producer], and Jack, with the four Monkees in tow, went to Ojai [California] for several days. They smoked "a ton of dope" (as Davy Jones recalls) and tossed ideas into a running tape recorder...The script was set up to have the least continuity imaginable, and only the slenderest plot trigger - the four Monkees leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge in an effort to escape the mental prison of a black box, which was "Head," meaning pothead, but also meaning all the rules and straitlaced conventions inside one's head that inhibit enjoyment of life. With their tapes and notes, Nicholson and Rafelson went away to the desert for inspiration. According to at least one account, they scribbled a treatment while tripping on acid."

By the time filming began on Head, The Monkees were less than happy with their circumstances. Not only were they feuding with Columbia over their contracts and salaries but they felt betrayed by Rafelson and Nicholson after they were informed that none of them would receive a writing credit on the film. "We were disappointed and angry," Micky Dolenz said. "Mike was furious. He took all the tapes and locked them in the trunk of his car!" As a result, Micky, Davy and Mike (without Peter's involvement) refused to show up on the first day of shooting which infuriated Rafelson and Nicholson. After a day of negotiations, filming resumed with all four band members but relations between the Monkees and their director were decidedly strained after that...and Mike, Davy, Micky and Peter never received a writer's credit for their contributions.

When Head was completed, Rafelson and Nicholson launched a guerilla advertising campaign in New York City, plastering stickers for the film everywhere on taxicabs, signs, police helmets, you name it. At one point they were even arrested for being public nuisances but their efforts were in vain. The critics were unimpressed and the film held little appeal for anyone who wasn't a fan of the Monkees' TV show. Dolenz stated later, "Because the film was rated R, most of our fans couldn't even get into the theatre to see it in the first place and those who did just didn't have any idea of what we were up to." Nicholson, however, maintains even today that Head is one of his proudest accomplishments and still calls it "the best rock-'n-roll movie ever made." Despite its commercial failure, Rafelson was equally pleased with it, comparing it often to Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963).
In HEAD, the Monkees finally play their own instruments, attack a coke machine in the desert, play dandruff in Victor Mature's hair, and jump off the Golden Gate bridge. In general, they finally get to do whatever they want.

They rebelled mightily against their own Velveeta-hood.

In the process, they became Real, and as you good children know, once you are Real you can't become unreal.



Listening to: The Electric Prunes - I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)
via FoxyTunes


A.W. said...

In the process, they became Real, and as you good children know, once you are Real you can't become unreal.

I loved that movie, it was one of the few I could sit through as a kid, probably because of the Philosophy of Real. The story is archived online, too, though I seem to've misplaced the address. I also remember The Monkees' show, reruns, anyway, was unawares they conspired in a movie. You'd think they would've at least gotten some credit.

Ravenmn said...

Wow, I missed this entirely. I loved the Monkees, too. Had their albums, watched their show. But I've never heard about the movie and this description sounds awesome. To make it complete, I'm reading this on Saturday, so I've lost my chance to see the movie on TCM!

Thanks for the education, Daisy!

abstractjenn said...

I have always wanted to see this movie. I LOVED Micky. I'm bummed I missed it.