I’m an unabashed fan of The Monkees. I used to come home from school and watch their TV show, which debuted 50 years ago this week, in reruns (I’m not that old). I had their first four albums on LP and, as a kid, would play along on my toy drumkit, pretending I was Mickey Dolenz, my favorite of the band. All the criticisms of them being a fake band who just sang and relied on studio musicians and outside songwriters could also be leveled at many Motown and other groups of the era and are therefore invalid. The Monkees turned out some great pop tunes and deserve the same objective evaluation any other band of their ilk receives.
Since it’s been 50 years since The Monkees invaded our TVs, it’s a good time to take a look back at the group’s transition to feature films, 1968’s Head. The movie’s story is…well…there isn’t really one. The group’s TV show had been canceled by this point and the movie is largely a rumination on fame, a la A Hard Day’s Night. But there’s no structure to speak of, instead stringing together a sequence of set pieces and non-sequiturs that wouldn’t be out of place on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” The only real through line is the band members trying to escape from their constraints, often represented by a giant version of actor Victor Mature.
As can be guessed, the movie was not a success. The Monkees’ public persona had been so carefully scripted for the last few years through the height of their success and this was an intentional dynamiting of that image. So fans of the show and albums were confused and alienated and since “serious” culture had already dismissed the group there was essentially no audience for a bizarre counter-culture experiment like this.
That’s understandable when you look at least how part of the marketing went down. The teaser poster makes no mention of The Monkees being involved at all, instead just featuring a black-and-white photo of publicity agent John Brockman. It’s…weird. But the goal was seemingly to intentionally not market this as a Monkees movie and instead as a psychedelic counter-culture film to see while stoned to the rafters.
The theatrical poster uses The Monkees a bit more, but still doesn’t know what to do with them considering the movie in questions. Against a bright yellow background we see the four Monkees – Mickey, Davy, Mike and Peter – falling from the sky in a playful pose that wouldn’t be out of place on their TV show. The Monkees brand name is clearly affixed across the top of the design, just above the names of the supporting cast. Below that list the marketers really tried to make this accessible to the masses by describing it as a mix of several genres. Below the title toward the bottom of the poster is a critics’ quote saying the movie is “for the turned-on audience,” another appeal not to the teenyboppers who thought Davy was dreamy but to the hippies who were dropping acid.
The trailer is a mix of the two appeals. On the one hand, the pacing and overall structure of the spot is very trippy and is meant to show that this isn’t your typical Monkees product. But the footage itself is arranged in such a way to basically sell it as an extended episode of their show. There’s lots of slapstick and wacky sound effects and outrageous situations mixed in with occasional live performances from the band. T
There’s little here to make this seem like anything other than a generally fun and pleasant time at the movies. The band all appears game and while it certainly doesn’t come off as great cinema it also doesn’t look like a complete mess of a movie. At least not when viewed through the lens of the TV show, which makes the antics on display here seem like harmless fun, not an indictment of stardom and fame that’s best viewed while under the influence of mind-altering substances (which is the state I was in the one time I was able to sit through the whole thing).
Head is often conspicuously missing from most Monkees nostalgia, including this year’s celebration of the band, unless it’s as an unfortunate footnote. The accompanying soundtrack album isn’t bad. In fact it’s often held up as some of The Monkees’ best work, an indication not only of the quality songwriters they worked with and the evolution of the group to that point. It was included in the Blu-ray set of the complete TV show to celebrate this year’s anniversary and it’s received sporadic home video releases over the years, including a Criterion edition back in 2010. Mostly, though Head is territory even die-hards fear to tread into since it so upends the Monkees mythos, something that was hinted at strongly by the marketing that unsuccessfully tried to sell it to the public.