When Monkeys premiering on NBC in the fall of 1966, there was nothing like it on television. Before laughthe series offered a unique flow of Marx Brothers style gags, non-sequences and sunny pop tunes. Created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider originally as a series about a folk band, the show had no takers. After the success of The Beatles and A hard day’s Night, the concept was changed for rockers with long hair and quickly found interest. With a pilot script of Paul Mazoursky and larry tucker (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice), and featuring four young actors/musicians — Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Torkand davy jones – the series would be an immediate hit with pre-teen audiences who missed Beatlemania but were ready for Monkeemania.
The amazing thing is that the imaginary group produced hit songs. With a stable of great songwriters and the assistance of a music advisor Don Kirshner (aka “the man with the golden ear”), the Monkee music machine seemed unstoppable. That’s until Nesmith, Tork, Dolenz and Jones decided that not having a say in the creative process was kind of a drag. They not only wanted more control over the music produced, but also for the show to reflect some of their ideas and attitudes. The show’s second season and produced records would see each member blurring the lines of the characters they played and the music they made with their true personalities. For their part, Rafelson and Schneider encouraged the guys to get creatively involved with the show, including having them bring guests like Frank Zappa and singer-songwriter Tim Buckley.
While the series became more inventive and irreverent, the end of the second season saw the ratings cool and the hit songs dry up. Young Monkee fans who were giddy for “I’m a Believer” were now starting to listen Jefferson Plane, The Grateful Deadand maybe Moby Grape. But the Monkees, with Schneider, Rafelson and a young actor named Jack Nicholson, decided to head to Ojai, Calif., with some Primo weed, some wacky ideas, and a tape recorder. It is the tapes of this drug-fueled weekend that will produce the script for Heada flag-waving monster for the mainstream of Hollywood.
Coming to theaters in November 1968, Head was far from a happy hippie flower power movie. Both angry and funny, it’s a hallucinogenic cinematic diatribe about fame, big media, old Hollywood, new Hollywood and the battle for artistic freedom.
This momentum of freedom comes at the beginning of the film when the group interrupts an inauguration ceremony by jumping from a bridge. Is it a collective suicide or a cosmic rebirth? More likely it was some of that really good Ojai weed. Head goes from this underwater psychedelic sequence to parodies of various Hollywood genres. War movies, westerns, and even boxing movies go monkee. It’s like director Rafelson, screenwriter Nicholson, and the Monkees want to make sure they can play in all areas of Columbia Pictures Studios before they get kicked out of the lot.
In Head, the Monkees are also determined to smash their image as adorable, crazy innocents: a sequence with a woman kissing each Monkee is an obvious nod to the joys of groupies; the song “Circle Sky” is an intense commentary on the Vietnam War; and a scene with savage actor Timothy Carey makes the Monkees laugh at someone with a disability. (I bet you didn’t see it coming.) But it could be a dream sequence, with Andy Warhol mylar balloons floating around, that contains the most shocking moment: Nesmith proudly saying to a terrified crowd that he does not like… Christmas!
Some critics have called Head pretentious. That’s far from being the case. Everything is played as a joke, a thumbs-up and an irony in the cheek. Even the dark moments lead us to a surreal shtick or a manic breaking of the fourth wall. The movie asks you to take a giant leap out of your mind and play a wild game of free association. It’s all fun and games until the mind-blowing journey comes to an abrupt end with Big Victor (played by Hollywood legend Victor Mature), which puts the Monkees in a box and takes them to a place where they can come to their senses, start behaving, and start generating income again.
It’s no surprise that 12-year-olds have little interest in the movie. It’s surprising that film critics were also dismissive. Head quickly disappeared and forced the group to return to TV for a special, 33+1⁄3 turns per monkey, which was forgotten faster than Head, and led to Tork leaving the band to become a teacher. With no future TV series or movie projects, the remaining Monkees continued to record unsuccessful albums and appear on shows like Hollywood Squares and The Johnny Cash Show. Meanwhile, Rafelson and Nicholson would move on to their next projects, the hit counterculture films Easy walkr and Five easy pieces.
In 1970, Nesmith left to record his brand of quirky country rock and became a music video pioneer, while Dolenz and Jones (sometimes) toured together and worked on other television and stage projects. But in 1986, MTV started broadcasting Monkeys marathon to celebrate the series’ 20th anniversary. Soon the band was touring (without Nesmith) and even recording new music. Monkeemania was back, and it seemed like the perfect time for a Head the comeback. But the monkeys didn’t talk much about Head and rarely played music from it. In 1996 the band would reunite with Nesmith and record a new album. It was during this tour that songs from the film began to appear in concert. The band seemed to embrace the film as part of their legacy, though Jones continued to say he thought it was a mistake.
The film’s 2010 Blu-ray release as part of the Criterion Collection America Lost and Found: The BBS Storywhich celebrates all the production of Rafelson, Schneider and his partner steve blauneris the starting point of the true renaissance of Head. His cult following has only grown over the past decade among film historians and filmmakers. Dolenz (the only living Monkee) recently spoke about the fact that Quentin Tarantino and Edgar Wright told him they considered it one of their favorite movies. With fans like that, it’s guaranteed that Head will never be forgotten again. That’s good news, because this ode to boundary-pushing, genre-defying, and spaced-out artistic freedom remains a fantastic journey.