Thursday, December 7, 2023

Head (1968): A Review (Review #1771)



The Monkees were seen on their eponymous television series as a sweet, all-American band, fun and frivolous, who in their own words were "just trying to be friendly". Always in the shadow of The Beatles, the Monkees perhaps unsurprisingly followed the Fab Four into film. The result was Head, a movie that obliterated their wholesome, clean-cut image by being one of the most bizarre films made. That is neither compliment nor insult. Head is at times too determined to be insane, but it is not without its merit.

I do not know if Head has an actual plot. A mix of musical performances and sketches that barely connect to each other, Head starts with Micky (Micky Dolenz) running or being chased, ending with him jumping off a newly dedicated bridge to be rescued by mermaids in a psychedelic montage to the equally psychedelic Porpoise Song.

From there, we go hither and yon, with each of the Monkees getting a particular bit. Michael (Michael Nesmith) sings lead on Circle Sky to screaming Monkees fans while the film intercuts Vietnam War footage. Micky finds the literal last Coca-Cola in the desert (or at least a Coke machine) while he hears his own voice pushing him onwards to a harem where we hear Peter's (Peter Tork) voice sing Can You Dig It? to dancing belly dancing beauties.

The Monkees then shift to a sound stage canteen, apparently run by a very unconvincing drag queen. Peter is conflicted about how his and the Monkees' image, but no matter: he still punches out the drag queen while Davy (Davy Jones) does a variation of Golden Boy with Annette Funicello (in one of the film's many cameos). Davy gets his own musical number, Daddy's Song, a wildly upbeat number about a deadbeat dad in the style of a Fred Astaire solo number (albeit in a more psychedelic manner). 

We also end up at Michael's surprise birthday party, a somewhat Felliniesque affair where we hear Peter Tork's Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again? despite the party much to Michael's displeasure. A guru Peter meets gives him "The Truth", which he eventually shares with his bandmates when they are trapped in a box. The Truth is that he knows nothing. Eventually, they all escape both the box and the various sets they have been in only to end up all jumping off the same bridge, again to Porpoise Song. Yet, they are not free, but instead in a fish tank driven by Victor Mature, billed as "The Big Victor".

After going over the Head summary, I am reminded of the many dreams that I have had which make sense during the dream, but which are downright bizarre once I wake up and think on them. Head, I do not think, has a plot per se. I think writers Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) and director Bob Rafelson (with uncredited work by the Monkees themselves) created a series of scenarios and strung them together. It does play a bit like how my memories of The Monkees television show played: a bit anarchic, almost frothy. Unlike the television series, however, there is a darkness, an edge, almost an anger and bitterness in Head that I think would have jolted all those screaming girls that Circle Sky showed.

"Well, if it isn't God's gifts to the eight-year-olds?", the drag queen canteen manageress sneers when the band comes in. Obviously, Head was determined to obliterate the bandmembers persona as four delightful lads and make them into more hip counterculture figures. I do not think it succeeded because at times Head seemed to try too hard to be whacked-out and weird. I understand their desire to reveal a different side of themselves. I do not know why they thought bashing what made them successful would be the way to do it.

Not that there weren't moments where it did work. After Daddy's Song, Davy leaves the soundstage with of all people, Frank Zappa. "That song was pretty white," Zappa tells Jones. Without missing a beat, Jones replies, "Well, so am I. What can I tell you?". 

The Ditty Diego, a parody of The Monkees theme, has lyrics which openly mocks their images. "Hey, hey, we are the Monkees. You know we love to please. A manufactured image, with no philosophies. We hope like our story, although there isn't one. That is to say there's many, that way there is no fun" the various bandmates talk-sing. It's as if through Head, our Prefab Four decided to tear into their own squeaky-clean image to deliver more avant-garde antics.

How else to explain the Circle Sky sequence, where the screaming fans are apparently compared to the Vietnam war and end with the fans tearing the bandmembers limb from limb (albeit being made clear that the fans are tearing at dummies)? The trippy Porpoise Song, the smooth, vaguely to my mind Pet Sounds-like As We Go Along, even the bitterly ironic Daddy's Song. Each musical number is so far from the jolly work of Daydream Believer, Pleasant Valley Sunday or I'm a Believer.

Head, if anything, does make a good case that The Monkees made good music. They did have some contributions from excellent songwriters like Gerry Goffin & Carole King and Harry Nilsson on Porpoise Song and Daddy's Song respectively. It is interesting that Goffin and King could more than meet the Beatles' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life with Porpoise Song. That song could easily have come from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Band, revealing Goffin and King as exceptional songwriters who could keep up with the times. The song and visuals are quite trippy, a cinematic acid trip meant to be a bit whacked out. 

I imagine that everyone involved with Head wanted to be as bizarre and outlandish as possible, logic be damned. I do not know if it fully works the way Rafelson and the Monkees expected it to. One wonders why, for example, a football player is in the trenches with the band before they rush to the Circle Sky concert scene. I want to say that they were suggesting that there were too many young men fighting, or that those young men saw war as a sport. It is hard to tell with Head

Being mostly unfamiliar with the Monkees work (I do not think I've seen a full episode or know much of their music) I was surprised that I thought mostly well of the Head soundtrack. I do not think there was a bad song in the lot. The interesting thing is that while the Monkees, I think, were trying to capture the zeitgeist visually, they did better musically. I think the songs in Head better captured the changing times and tastes because they sounded authentic. This is counter to what was presented on screen, which again I think tried too hard to be eccentric and bizarre.

When we hear something like Can You Dig It? or Porpoise Song or even the faux-cheery Daddy's Song, we get great moments that fit with the hippie counterculture. What does one think when you see the Monkees become the Big Victor's dandruff? 

One element that has to be highly praised is Mike Pozen's editing. Of particular note is the Daddy's Song sequence. Here, the various changes from a white suited Jones to a black suited Jones, while dancing merrily with the set in the opposite colors, flows amazingly fast but never outlandish or hard to follow. It is a wild piece of editing that leaves the viewer impressed. 

Having not seen The Monkees television series, I cannot say whether the four members played themselves or characters based on themselves. I understood that things were always meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, which Head is not. Despite that, I think Dolenz, Jones, Nesbit and Tork were at ease playing things a bit camp, fully in on the premise. There are not genuine performances per se because there are no characters or even story. I kept thinking that Victor Mature was just happy to be paid and to be there. Outside of a seance, I figure he had no idea what any of this was about.

Head was determined to be as weird and perhaps illogical as possible. One set of closing credits is written backwards. When read, we get such credits as "Mike Burns: Nothing", "John Hoffman: The Sexfiend" (sic) and "Linda Weaver: Lover, Secretary". I still haven't figured out what the "Jim Hanley: Sidorf" credit is. Maybe an inside joke? Head does at times play like a long inside joke. I think people who love the charming rascals that they saw on The Monkees might be put off by Head's deliberately trippy manner. However, I was impressed with the editing and the music, even if I thought it sometimes tried too hard to be avant-garde.

I now do wonder if my Mom got her expression, "he/she thinks he/she is the last Coca-Cola in the desert" from Head or it was a common expression that Head just used. Good music and strong editing overcome deliberate eccentricity.  


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