The Monkee’s movie HEAD was ahead of its time

“Pleasure – the inevitable byproduct of our civilization… The tragedy of our time, my young friends, is you may get exactly what you want.”

When I was pulling together a list of movies to view or revisit as part of this series, I knew that Head had to be on the list. After I found out that a member of The Monkees, the kind and talented Davy Jones, passed away today, I naturally moved it to the top of the list. And boy, am I glad I did.

Head was made in 1968 by Monkees co-creator Bob Rafelson, when The Monkees’ popularity with audiences was in decline. They could have gone two ways with the first (and only) Monkees movie – play it safe to try and reignite their popularity, or go balls-to-the-wall counter-culture crazy. Luckily for us, they chose the latter, and the results is the most surreal film featuring a faux-pop band ever made.

I would describe the plot but the primary point of the movie is there isn’t one. Head is not a typical film, with a beginning middle and end: it is a series of vignettes that are only loosely connected (and in some instances there is no cohesive tissue at all). It is also, obviously, a musical, with many of the vignettes representing some of the first music videos ever made (much like the limited musical numbers in the series were). The film at times plays as a parody of an episode of thier show as well as a parody of… well, The Monkees. Check these lyrics out:

You say we’re manufactured,
To that we all agree,
So make your choice and we’ll rejoice
In never being free.
Hey, hey, we are the Monkees,
We’ve said it all before,
The money’s in, we’re made of tin,
We’re here to give you more…

The idea that the band could go along with this, to openly mock themselves as a “product”… well, it took some massive cajones. And I’m pretty sure it didn’t make the executives of their music label very happy. I can’t imagine any mucial artist today doing something this bold (Prince did something similar years back, primarily to get out of his contract). The band members portray DANDRUFF in one scene, for pete’s sake…

The movie was written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson – yes, THAT Jack Nicholson – who cameos in one scene with Dennis Hopper (both were making Easy Rider at the time). Other cameos include Teri Garr, Victor Mature, Annette Funicello and Frank Zappa (and look close for a young Toni Basil). It was the first collaboration between Rafelson and Nicholson, who went on to make Five Easy Pieces and four other films together. I put Head on equal footing with Five Easy Pieces – and yes, I can imagine many film crititics scoffing at the very thought as I type this.

It’s all a glorious mess, mixing different genres and cliches, and predates the similiar surreal comedy of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. It was ahead of its time and is quite entertaining… and it also bombed at the box office. Why? Partially because The Monkees were on the decline already, and also because of a very odd ad campaign made it hard for anyone to understand what the movie was about in the first place – you know, like those ads for John Carter that have come out recently. I think the primary cause for its failure was because of audience expectations… the movie’s tone and humor was a far cry from the very safe prime-time series viewers had come to expect. It has grown in popularity since its release to “cult movie” status, though it is still barely noted by film historians and deserves both more attention and some critical acclaim.

Additionally, the movie also produced a fantastic soundtrack, one of the Monkee’s best albums. Highlight tracks: “Circle Sky”, “Porpoise Song”, “Daddy’s Song” (written by Harry Nilsson) and “Do I have to do this all over again?”

Finally, as I rewatch this and see Davy Jones give it his all, I really can see why so many female fans (and some males) were attracted to him (and why Gene Roddenberry cloned him into a Russian ensign on Star Trek). He has an energy, a talent, and a passion that is youthful and absolutely true. They don’t make them like him anymore. One scene, in particular, is a showstopper:

Rest in peace, Davy.

So, everyone, do yourself a favor – Go watch Head.

Some more images from Head:

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Joseph Dickerson is a user experience professional and UX Lead for Microsoft based out of Atlanta, GA. He has implemented processes in user testing, design and ethnographic research and provided design and consulting services for many different projects and organizations.

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