Film

Who Is That Guy? The Golden Anniversary of the Monkees’ Career Suicide

“Head” is a terrific movie. Too bad it doomed one of history’s hottest Top 40 bands.

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November 5, 1968, represented a fracture in American history. As the Vietnam War raged, Richard Nixon — promising a secret plan to end the carnage — won the presidency with less than 1 percent of the popular vote. It could be argued that there had never been a starker disconnect between the arc of the popular culture and the politician — in this case, a buttoned-down, uptight Quaker — elected to lead it. Many Americans had grown increasingly skeptical about waging war against such a small and distant country, and about America’s leadership at home. This was reflected in a mushrooming counterculture, which, that same month, saw the publication of the inaugural issue of Screw, a magazine that pushed the boundaries of obscenity laws by publishing photos of sexually frolicking couples, outré cartoons, and bawdy (not to say, offensively misogynist) articles.

Another cultural milestone — perhaps millstone would be the more accurate term — premiered in New York City the day after the election: TV producer-director Bob Rafelson brought the band he had created for the fast-paced music sitcom The Monkees to the big screen, in Head. A friend and colleague of Rafelson’s, Jack Nicholson, wrote the script, purportedly under the influence of various illegal substances. The episodic, stream-of-consciousness narrative opens with a suicide leap from a bridge by drummer and vocalist Micky Dolenz, segues into a long take of a young woman kissing each of the Monkees in turn — “even” is her evaluation of their appeal — and then caroms through skits and sketches involving cowboys, Indians, World War II battles, love scenes, fight scenes, food fights, stylish dance numbers, and numerous other Hollywood tropes conjured on Columbia Pictures’ soundstages and backlots.

Early on, the screen is divided into TV-like previews of scenes to come in the film. But then nineteen of the twenty small-screen views switch to the famously wrenching clip of a South Vietnamese official executing a Viet Cong prisoner with a pistol shot to the head. The twentieth screen cuts to the image of a screaming girl, which when enlarged reveals just another pubescent teenybopper jettisoning composure at a Monkees concert. This dissonant vignette alerts viewers that Head is going to move beyond the scope of the weekly half-hour funfest viewers had grown accustomed to watching on television. The scene could have been edited by the French Marxist theorist Guy Debord, author of The Society of the Spectacle (1967), which critiqued modern society as an arena in which physical experience is overwhelmed by a parade of imagery, the more sensational — sex, violence, desirable commodities — the better to distract citizens and keep them socially and politically passive. Debord’s opening aphorism states, “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation,” an observation that has proven as prescient a definition of the internet as Andy Warhol’s 1968 bon mot, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”

The Monkees were about as famous as you could get, with their More of the Monkees album beating out even the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for the number one U.S. slot in 1967.  But the four band members — Dolenz, heartthrob singer Davy Jones, folk musician Mike Nesmith, and multi-instrumentalist Peter Tork — were a fabricated foursome brought together by a want ad seeking “Folk & Roll Musician-Singers for acting roles in new TV series.” The words acting roles hint at the fact that the show’s songs would actually be written by hired tunesmiths and recorded with ace session players. Over time the lads chafed at the restrictions placed on them as performers, and did get some of their own songs onto their albums, but such massive hits as “Last Train to Clarksville” were written and performed by ringers (although Dolenz provided that track’s distinctive lead vocal). Finally, despite one of the main producer’s objections, they began performing live to enthusiastic crowds, who reveled in their nonabrasive, upbeat melodies.

Perhaps the Monkees hoped that Head would have the gravitas to boost them into orbit as creators in their own right. Or maybe they were just sick of their image as poster boys for innocuous, if catchy, pop. The lyrics to Head’s second number, a twist on the weekly TV show’s theme song, leaves no doubt that they were hip to their image of being little more than Beatles knockoffs:

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

But if the film debut was meant to be seen as less a Hard Day’s Night rip-off and more a declaration of independence, the band was undermined by agreeing to use songs by outside contributors. With the surfeit of melodies at Lennon and McCartney’s fingertips, one could never imagine the Beatles relying on hired guns, and in fact the Fab Four’s Yellow Submarine was released in the U.S. on November 13 of the same year, the ads prominently trumpeting, “A DOZEN BEATLE SONGS.” In contrast, Head’s beautiful opening track, Porpoise Song, was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, while Davy Jones’s showstopping turn as a son deserted by his father, in Daddy’s Song, was penned by Harry Nilsson.

Head was shot while the psychedelic era was in full bloom, and the film is chockablock with garish, solarized colors and vibrant set design. However, unlike the scattershot aesthetics of too many MTV videos in the 1980s, the movie’s spasmodic material was kept firmly in check by Rafelson, who visually stitched the divergent scenes together, as when the mermaids who save the suicidal Dolenz in the first scene morph into fish swimming around an aquarium as the serial kisser begins her rounds. Similarly, editor Michael Pozen kept the dance moves and seizure-inducing light flashes tightly synced to the rhythms of the tunes, even conjuring an aura of conflicted emotions through the lightning cuts in Jones’s poignant dance sequence.

It was obvious that someone at Columbia felt Head had box office potential, because roughly a month out from the premiere, large, mysterious ads began appearing in the pages of the Voice. A thick-lipped young man sporting a dark comb-over and glasses gazes at the reader; in the first two ads to run, the only copy acts as a textual dopplegänger to the half-tone image. Other movies advertised on those same pages give a sense of the era’s cultural tumult: Andy Warhol’s Flesh, Jane Fonda exposing much of her own skin in Barbarella, Godard’s visceral Weekend, Steve McQueen’s careening Mustang in Bullitt arriving for an engagement at Radio City Music Hall. But the Monkees couldn’t count on the savvy of New York’s downtown cognoscenti the way Warhol could — the quartet needed to appeal to a broader demographic, including young teens who were certainly not expecting grainy execution footage in a pop-music jaunt. In a recent interview, Nesmith related that one of the film’s producers was insistent on using the violent clip, saying, “It’s anti-war, and it’ll have a big effect on the war.” Needless to say, the film had less impact in that regard than even the extremely oblique lyrics in “Last Train to Clarksville,” in which the male character says over and over to his girlfriend that she must meet him, because “I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.”

The Monkees’ career had been measured in Top 40 sweetness, and they seemed to have wanted Head to crack that sugar coating and lend jagged edges to their madcap charm. America is fighting a put-up job of a war? Fine — let’s deploy cheerleaders and football players to expose those jingoistic absurdities, hence the addition of Green Bay Packer linebacker Ray Nitschke to a roster that also included cameos from Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, Jack Nicholson, Sonny Liston, Frank Zappa, Teri Garr, and a clip of the Rockettes, among what genuinely feels like “a cast of thousands.”

Liston appears as himself, trading punches with the diminutive Jones. The ex–heavyweight champ predictably decks the crooner, and Dolenz shouts at his colleague to “stay down!” Nesmith, in gangster finery, rumbles, “He better. The money says so,” a line the band probably heard from some producer who’d told the members their careers were better served acting as facades for real songwriters and musicians.

Voice critic Andrew Sarris was not amused, though he first notes that he might be the only critic, young or old, “not enchanted” with the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Then he delves into the Monkees’ undertaking: “And anyway, there is ‘Head’ to contend with this week, and what is one to say about an enterprise that flaunts its fakery and unoriginality as comic virtues. The Monkees, in case you haven’t been forewarned by their television series, are synthetic Beatles, actually four electronic insects with little charm and less talent, but with a life-like facility for madcap mimicry.” Decrying what he sees as the film’s unoriginality, he does allow that “the new style in Hollywood is to admit the plagiarism immediately and then look for points of departure. And one of the points of departure for the Monkees is that they are cheerful fakes, and some of this cheerfulness comes through in ‘Head.’ ” That appealing cheerfulness no doubt accounts for Sarris’s strong objection to the Vietnam execution footage — though at a half-century’s remove it seems a jolt of genuine awareness, as if the filmmakers were truly questioning what was worth screaming about. Sometimes a misstep hits the mark. In his conclusion, Sarris clears up one mystery, noting that “the omnipresent head of publicist John Brockman [in the film’s ads] represents the most spectacular advertising gambit in recent memory, and one of the most misleading ads ever. No movie could look THAT depraved!”

According to various sources, Head cost in the neighborhood of $750,000 but scored a decidedly unboffo $16,111 at the box office.

In 1970, Nicholson went on to star in Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, which boosted both men’s careers, while the Monkees descended to the nostalgia circuit in various permutations of the band’s lineup. They never again knew the heady stardom they enjoyed in the late Sixties, but they persevered in their music. While we were researching a different story one day in the Voice archives, a classified ad from the June 25, 1985, issue leaped out at us. Sorry we missed the opportunity to study with a master, back in the day.

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