Thursday, March 8, 2012

Head (1968) - in memory of Davy Jones

Directed by Bob Rafelson

In honor of Davy Jones’ passing last week, I wanted to honor his memory in a review of one of my favorite film guilty pleasures, Head. It is a challenging film to review that I have put off attempting for some time, but decided to try to tackle it for you all to enjoy in a belated tribute to Jones...

During the 60’s Beatles craze and their popular hit movie A Hard Day's Night, The Monkees were a U.S band created by the Hollywood machine for the sole purpose of having their own TV show. Consisting of actors Mickey Dolenz and Davy Jones and musicians Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith, The Monkees’ 1966 TV show was a bona fide hit, mixing the concept of a sitcom with one of the first versions of what would become music videos. Their hit pop songs were the brainchild of songwriters such as Neil Diamond, yet the boys never played a lick of their own instruments, only lending to the vocals. After the show’s first season, the boys demanded that they go on tour and learned to play instruments for the live events and were completely over the show by the time that the second season went into production.
Lacking the punch of the first season, the sophomore follow up was not up to par and thus its last. 

Meanwhile, the group wanted to be considered serious musicians, but remained synonymous with their TV show characters’ persona. This led them into making a film gauged towards the more adult, hipper crowd and leaving their bubble gum style far behind them. As widely documented - while smoking marijuana, the boys tape recorded several ideas during a binge in California that writer Jack Nicholson (yup, same Jack you are thinking of) used to write a screenplay under the influence of LSD. The result is director Bob Rafelson’s 1968 feature, Head.

In the vein of avant garde, Head is a non-linear film that showcases the boys' attempt to shed their manufactured image through several bizarre events. But no matter what the troupe does or suffers through in order to escape the clutches of The Big Victor (Victor Mature), who keeps them in locked away in a giant black box, they are unable to do so. The symbolism here is that Mature references the NBC TV studio and their recording company Rhino who kept them in a box, which is a metaphor for their TV image (a TV is a box in shape) and left them unable to truly express themselves artistically. The best example of the Monkees shattering their image was the Rafelson-Nicholson penned “Ditty Diego”, a song heard early on in the film that went along to the tune of their TV show’s theme song:

Hey, hey, we are The Monkees,
You know we love to please,
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.

We hope you'll like our story,
Although, there isn't one,
That is to say, there's many,
That way, there is more fun.

You've told us you like action,
And games of many kinds,
You like to dance, we like to sing,
So, let's all lose our minds.

We know it doesn't matter,
'Cause what you came to see,
Is what we'd love to give you,
And give it 1-2-3.
But, it may come 3-2-1-2,
Or jump from 9 to 5,
And when you see the end in sight,
The beginning may arrive.

For those who look for meanings,
In form, as they do fact,
We might tell you one thing,
But we'd only take it back.
Not back like in a box back,
Not back like in a race,
Not back so we can keep it,
But back in time and space.

You say we're manufactured,
To that we all agree,
So make your choice and we'll rejoice
In never being free.

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 money's in, we're made of tin,
We're here to give you...

Gone are the goofy usual antics that boys undertook in a supposedly haunted manor, like in the TV show. In its place is serious content, such as the group’s feelings on the ongoing Vietnam War and shots at U.S. commercialism. Head jumps around with skits pertaining to things like the Monkees at their TV show beach pad, to a boxing match and to the trenches of a war battle, until they finally play themselves in a giant manufacturing plant constantly trying to escape the Big Victor and the box he stores them in. Essentially, they are trapped in this film with their every movement and spoken word choreographed by the creators, as evident in scenes where Rafelson, Nicholson and even Dennis Hopper come in from off camera and break the fourth wall to show they are indeed in the middle of shooting a flick.

The film in and of itself is a reflection on their real lives as a faux band made for the commercial masses and nothing more. They show how they have “sold out” as apparent in their scene where they star in a demeaning commercial where they play dandruff in a giant hairpiece…which is shown to be The Big Victor, driving the point home even further. The "box" is also a reference to an area that was made for them to hang out in during the series’ filming, so they would not wander off set during down time. At one point, the Monkees enter a canteen, only to have the other actors immediately get up to leave and give them looks of disgust. This stemmed from a real life event on the studio back lot while shooting the series, since no one took them seriously and did not want to be around them. During the same scene a cross-dressing waitress make comments that exemplifies their constant comparison to the legendary Beatles, with line such as, “(to Monkees’ drummer Dolenz) Are you still paying tribute to Ringo Starr?” and “Well if it isn’t God’s gift to the eight-year olds”. There is even a scene where Tork is whistling "Strawberry Fields Forever". The film is filled with so many of these subtleties that seem like they have no real importance, but in reality contain a deeper meaning. All of which you cannot possibly detect during a single viewing or having some back story going in to it.

In the final sequence, which is actually shown in the beginning scene to cite that the film is circular, the boys are so desperate to escape the constraints of the box and deconstruct their manufactured image, that they do something outrageous and uncharacteristic. They jump off a bridge and commit suicide. But alas, that was all part of The Big Victor’s plan as well, who sticks them back in the box to house them somewhere until he needs them again.

Head was supposed to be the death of The Monkees’ pop image, but instead was the death of The Monkees overall. The film was panned by all who saw it. Their young fans were turned off by it not being an extended version of their beloved Monkees TV program and the older crowd it was geared towards either didn’t get it or would not buy into this new state of mind these boys were selling. Soon, Tork would leave as well as Nesmith, and the band would drop off the radar until MTV aired a marathon of the series to a new generation in lieu of their 20th Anniversary.  

The truth of the matter is that as widely panned as Head was from a film perspective, it contained some of the group’s greatest songs. Even though nary a single busted into the Top 40, songs like “Porpoise Song”, “Circle Sky” and “Can You Dig It” are fantastic tunes that are open in discussing their dark subject matter that was hidden with tunes such as “Last Train to Clarksville” – a song about a man meeting with his girlfriend for one last fling before he is hauled off to war after being drafted because he might not be coming back. “Do I Have to Do This All Over Again” and “Daddy’s Song” are also pretty catchy and very non Monkeee-sque. But in 1968, the soundtrack, edited with clips from the film by Nicholson, was undeservedly trashed due to its connection to the film.

We all know that Rafelson and Nicholson’s careers skyrocketed, especially the latter, and we know that the Monkees kept coming back into the scene, sans Nesmith, from time to time for a trip down nostalgia lane. There are also a ton of cameos, including Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston, Teri Garr, and Annette Funicello. Meanwhile, Head gained a cult following that carries on to this very day as a film ahead of its time and one terribly misunderstood. A film originating well before VCRs were created has now has carried over to Blu-ray. This is a weird little flick that you should check out whether you are fans of The Monkees or not. An easy joke here is...Go Get Some Head!

Allow me to interject with a personal anecdote: I was a very little tyke when MTV brought back The Monkees in ’86. My sister and I loved watching the show and seeking out their records, which we found at local garage sales for a dime a piece. Don’t judge me – Amazon and eBay weren’t even a thought back then. When Head was released on VHS, we jumped at the chance to see this little heard of Monkees piece, but it was one giant “WTF?!” to me, and even to my older sister. But I LOVED “Porpoise Song”. My young mind didn’t understand 60’s “psychedelic” or anything like that back then, but the song was just simply cool to me. The internet didn’t exist, so we didn’t know the film’s back story and didn't know what was going on while watching it. Much like their young fans at the time of the film’s release, we expected a full length feature version of a Monkees episode and instead received one confusing bore fest. It killed any Monkees craze we were experiencing at the time, so I can see how the film failed back then with the kiddies who got a chance to see it on the big screen. In fact, I totally forgot all about it until I went to film school several years later, when one of my professors used it as an example of experimental filmmaking and avant garde. The rapid editing in the “Daddy’s Song” sequence and the use of reverse polarization in certain scenes was really trippy, man. I did some research on the film for a class paper and learned about the history of the film and with it, a whole new appreciation for it as an adult. If I may, I highly recommend anyone remotely interested in the film to do some Google searches on the film's legacy and the politics that went on behind the scenes at the time of its filming. Coincidentally, Nick at Nite started airing re-runs of their TV show during that same time, and I could not bear to watch it. What was I thinking when I was a kid? They WERE a manufactured pop boy band and not the same group that were in Head. It is too bad that the world never received more doses of this evolution of Monkee (he-he!) because if the Head soundtrack was any indication, they might have gone the route of successfully re-inventing themselves ala Madonna. The Monkees being a boy band, their pop sound and their TV show…I could care less about and am not really into. However, I will defend Head to the very end as a great film. I mean, look at the brains behind it…they went on to make little known flicks you might have heard of called Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider.  

Enjoy these clips and songs from the film…

4 out of 5 Crazy Monkeys



Maurice Mitchell said...

That's a trip in more ways than one. I know they tried to get serious, but I'll always love them as the goofy quartet. So, I'll probably never watch the film. Interesting read though. RIP Day Jones.

david_b said...

Very much agreed, and thanks much for the review of this crazy film. It's the subtle bits that really make the film, and while there's parts that are painful to watch (the chanting of "way to go, mike" coming to mind..), all in all it's made up for with the explosive live 'Circle Sky' and other sequences..

One of my all-time favorite movies.

david_b said...

Oh, forgot to mention, Micky's drumming on 'Circle Sky'..?

INCREDIBLE. Very theatrical, just try getting a drummer to play that.

Chuck said...

Dude, I have never heard of this movie! I must see it...I had all the Monkee's 45's back in the 60's and played them on my psychedelic portable record player. Thanks once again for turning me on to some cool shit from my youth...that I missed!!

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