A little while back, a friend of mine and I were talking about music. Our focus was on groups from the sixties. We touched on The Yardbirds, The Doors, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, all the essentials. But then, The Monkees were somehow mentioned and my friend was quick to dismiss them. He said something to the effect of “they were just a manufactured group whose only motive was to make money.” This was some time ago, and I didn’t really know much about the Monkees, and this information really turned me off of them. To quote my friend again, “they tried to cash in on the success of the Beatles except they didn’t have a fraction of their talent.”
About a year later, Head came into my possession. Remembering my conversation with my friend, I was a bit skeptical of the film’s quality. When I finally gave it a chance with an open mind, I was shocked by almost every aspect of this sixties gem.
Head is a film that definitely stays true to the word “experimental.” There is no linear plot, no consistent style, and it provides a great example for genre bending. A case can be made in calling it a comedy, drama, war film, musical, documentary, political satire, or really any type of film. All of these categories are thrown into a blender to create something very unique, if not strange. But I feel the films greatest strength is its ability to be self-aware. It was made knowing who the stars were and anticipating that there were people like my friend ready to critique the band.
The result is a surprising examination of the band’s commercial image, and it pokes a lot of fun at the Monkees being constantly referred to as a piece of fluff. This film literally makes them as small as dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair. They are aware that their popularity is fleeting and despite their desire to be taken seriously as musicians, there is no escaping their polished commercial image and inevitable decline.
It must be said that the Monkees do a great job playing themselves. I never did see the TV show that came before the film but on screen they have a great chemistry with each other and all of them are very natural performers. Each band member has their chance to shine in many key scenes. They parody how they are perceived by the media and let their true personalities shine through. I really identified with Peter Tork; they make reference to his character on the television show and point out, “you’re always the dummy, Peter.” In the film, Tork is portrayed to be much more contemplative and deep thinking which really seems to fit his demeanor more.
There is nothing to latch on to except, I believe, the film’s attitude. It is key that the material doesn’t take itself too seriously. It sprinkles interesting ideas and sometimes shocking imagery throughout the film, but the Monkees are having so much damn fun on the screen that it never feels preachy or overly philosophical. One of my favorite scenes, for example, shows the band playing a Mike Nesmith penned song, Circle Sky. It is a fantastic song and performance by the Monkees, but interspersed with the live performance is disturbing footage from Vietnam. At some point during the performance you can’t tell if the crowd is screaming for the band or screaming in horror from the Vietnam scenes.
This was Bob Rafelson’s first film and it is a great start to a great career. For Rafelson, this was more of a film school project than anything. He had the rare opportunity to make any kind of film he wanted with any sort of content that he wanted. There are carefully structured long takes and relaxing musical interludes in some places and to counterbalance there are very quick cuts and fast paced scenes in other places. There are absolutely no boundaries and it makes for quite an experience for a first time viewer and it holds up very well to repeated viewings.
To quote the Monkees themselves “you say we’re manufactured. To that we all agree. So make your choice and we’ll rejoice in never being free!” So what if the group was handpicked from a mile long list of actors, that doesn’t change the fact that they had lots of charisma and were (and still are) genuinely talented people. This film gave me a whole new respect for each member of the Monkees. One thing I forgot to mention is that the camera crew is visible frequently throughout the film. Rafelson himself constantly pops up reminding you you’re only watching a movie, don’t take it too seriously. You’re free to walk away with a message or just shrug your shoulders and say, “huh, that was weird.”