Virtually plotless with a free-form structure that owed a lot to the scattershot sketch format of TV's "Laugh-In" (1968-1973), Head was like the anti-A Hard Day's Night (1964) for cynical hipsters. Instead of depicting David, Micky, Michael and Peter as the endearing goofballs worshipped by teenyboppers across America, it deconstructed their image, revealing them to be a synthetic by-product of Hollywood marketing. The irony was that The Monkees were in on the joke and were only too happy to spoof their once popular TV series (1966-1968) and their pre-packaged personalities. Head also marked Bob Rafelson's feature film debut after an apprenticeship of producing and directing episodes of The Monkees TV series. And it was clearly a transitional film for Jack Nicholson who already had penned several screenplays including The Trip (1967) and was on the verge of stardom without knowing it - Easy Rider (1969), released the following year, would catapult the actor to overnight success.
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, 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).
The remarkable thing about Head is how well it holds up today despite being mired in the counterculture of the sixties. Some of the satirical jabs and anti-war rhetoric are as timely as ever, particularly the scene where Micky attacks a defective coke machine in the middle of an Arabian desert set. Or the scene where a deranged football player (Green Bay Packers' middle linebacker Ray Nitschke) repeatedly tackles Peter in a foxhole while chanting, "We're number one, we're number one!" Rafelson and Nicholson also have fun spoofing different movie genres and in one Western burlesque Teri Garr gets to deliver the immortal line "Suck it, before the venom reaches my heart!" after being bitten by a rattlesnake. The film's uneasy mixture of comedic throwaway bits with actual newsreel footage of Viet Nam and other flash points of the sixties gives it a subversive edge though some critics found it pretentious. "There was this one very disturbing sequence," Dolenz recalled, "in which Bob used that famous piece of news footage of Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan pulling out a snub-nosed .38 and shooting Vietcong Captain Bay Lop in the head....At one point in the movie it is shown thirty-two times simultaneously in split screen."
In the end, The Monkees may have had the last laugh since they were finally able to play their own music in Head after being dubbed by studio musicians in their television show (The band members, with the exception of Michael Nesmith, weren't real musicians when they were first hired for the TV series but learned how to play by the time Head went into production). And Head includes some of their best songs such as Nesmith's all-out-rocker "Circle Sky" (recorded before a live audience in Utah), Tork's two "Summer of Love" ditties, "Can You Dig It" and "Long Title: Do I Have To Do This All Over Again," "As We Go Along," a Carole King-Toni Stern composition featuring the guitar work of Ry Cooder and Neil Young, plus "Daddy's Song" by Harry Nilsson and the psychedelic opening number, "Porpoise Song," written by Jerry Coffin and Carole King.
Years after being ridiculed as an infantile imitation of The Beatles, packaged for fickle teenagers, The Monkees are finally getting a little overdue respect for Head whose cult continues to grow whenever it is shown. And Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson have nothing to be ashamed of either.
Producer: Bert Schneider, Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson
Director: Bob Rafelson
Screenplay: Jack Nicholson, Bob Rafelson
Cinematography: Michel Hugo
Art Direction: Sydney Z. Litwack
Costume Design: Gene Ashman
Film Editing: Michael Pozen, Monte Hellman
Cast: Peter Tork (Peter), Davy Jones (Davy), Micky Dolenz (Micky), Michael Nesmith (Mike), Annette Funicello (Minnie), Timothy Carey (Lord High 'n' Low), Abraham Sofaer (Swami), Vito Scotti (I. Vitteloni), Charles Macaulay (Inspector Shrink), Charles Irving (Mayor Feedback), Percy Helton (Heraldic Messenger).
by Jeff Stafford