director Bob Rafelson
When Monkees’ lead singer, Davy Jones, died suddenly in February, it wasn’t surprising how many, not necessarily closeted but still perhaps quiet, Monkees’ fans came out of the woodwork via social media to express their long-held love for the man and the band. It’s not terribly surprising, really. But my generation wasn’t quite born yet when the Monkees were at their height. Like so much pop-culture that glutted our years in the 1970’s and 1980’s, we grew up on the totally different system of television syndication, probably seeing such things every afternoon for months at a time. A different, but no less (maybe more) effective method of indoctrination.
My brief fanhood of the Monkees took place in 1977/78, when I was in third grade, watching all of my afternoon retro (before retro was retro) fare via WTCG from Atlanta (before it became (W)TBS). Whether it was The Flintstones, Space Giants, Father Knows Best, or The Monkees, I went through ages of watching that stuff. And I was really into the Monkees round about that time. I recall even being mocked for it in one of my first experiences with not-cool-dom.
But my Monkees thing was brief, not significant. But years ago, when I read Peter Biskind’s “Raging Bulls and Easy Riders” about the whole 1970’s movie scene, I recalled how Head was supposed to have been this weird, radical film that totally turned the Monkees inside out, alienating their teenage fan base and signaling the end of their careers. The whole shebang was brought about in part by director Bob Rafelson and producer Bert Schneider, as well as co-writer Jack Nicholson, and even the Monkees themselves. Rafelson and Schneider were the ones that brought the Monkees together in the first place, the “pre-fab four” as they came to be known, a prefabricated boy band (in some senses considered a forerunner of the boy bands of the 1990’s and henceforth), guys who hadn’t met, were mostly actors, not musicians and who yet somehow managed to outsell the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in their heyday.
So, I’ve had the film in my queue for eons. And Jones’ death seemed an apropos time to finally get around to watching it.
Now, I’m an avowed hater of the Beatles, so I haven’t done the due diligence of watching A Hard Day’s Night (1964) or Help! (1965), the two Beatles’ films that probably laid the groundwork for such a thing as Head. And I haven’t watched The Monkees television show in ages and ages. So, I’m coming in only with the historical context not the content context.
I’d say that Head is a real mishmash. It’s almost downright cruel, laying out the band as “plastic”, indiscernible, commodified thing. Frank Zappa appears, criticizing Davy Jones for spending time on his dancing and not his music. He tells him that he needs to spend time on his music because “the youth of America needs you to show the way.” Really, that’s not cruel in and of itself. It’s good advice to any “artist” enjoying the success of popularity. God knows how many pre-fab music stars there are today and there is certainly a real question as to integrity and potential influence over the target audience for such things. The “youth of America” could use an intelligent guiding force rather than a mindless one.
As far as entertainment, Head is fairly weak. It’s psychedelic sequences are its best, and its disjointed narrative is not its ultimate weakness. The humor sequences are flat and shabby (perhaps intentionally, considering this is the tone of the show that they were sending up). Some of the references to the Vietnam War, while timely and potentially part of the material to “wake up” its teenage audience, still feels cheap since it comes and goes without a cohesive theme. It’s like the one super-serious element throughout (showing real violence, bodies, and killings).
The smart kids in corporate Hollywood, Rafelson and Schneider, made their fun, commercial conceit a major hit through television and music. And when they started hanging with “the cool guys” like Nicholson, Peter Fonda, and Dennis Hopper, sabotaging their cartoon product seemed the cool way to admit that it was all a sham and that they were in on the joke. The irony is that this pop culture phenomenon had not just legs but significance to people, who could appreciate the music (original or not) and the goofy, corny show, and still be affected when the face of that franchise, lead singer Davy Jones, passed away finally. That there was something more there than they were given credit for.