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Since Davy Jones died last week, hopefully people are taking a second look at the career of the Monkees, one of the strangest anomalies in music history. Yes, they were completely fabricated and one of them had never even picked up an instrument in their life, but with some of the finest songwriters of the 1960s providing them with material, their music continues to stay popular. The Monkees were made up of Mike Nesmith, who wore that knit cap; Peter Tork, who rarely got to sing; Micky Dolenz, whose unique vocals were featured on the majority of their hits, and Davy, the heartthrob. Peter and Michael were real musicians who came out of the same southern California circle that gave us countless great bands, while Micky and Davy were child actors. Bob Rafelson and the late Bert Schneider brought them together for the hit show and two years later, they decided to tear them apart with Head.
Head starts out with the image of a man in a suit and a police officer trying to cut a ribbon to open a bridge. Then, we see Micky suddenly run through the ribbon, closely followed by the rest. Peter, Michael and Davy look in horror as Micky suddenly jumps off the bridge. That’s when Rafelson and co-writer Jack Nicholson (yes, the Jack Nicholson) take the audience on one of the strangest journeys through consciousness ever committed to film.
“A face, a voice, an overdub has no choice/And it cannot rejoice,” Micky sings in “Porpoise Song,” the theme for the movie, which was written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. It’s a line that perfectly sums up the film, which is all about breaking from the confines of merchandising and what people expect. Does a celebrity lose their freedom when his public expects one thing all the time? Doesn’t free will mean that we have a choice to do whatever we want, whatever the cost? The cost the Monkees paid was their death. Head killed their career, which is exactly what Refelson and Nicholson wanted to do.
After the “Porpoise Song,” the audience is bombarded with images which are really scenes from every part of the film, while the group sings what Nicholson and Rafelson called “Ditty Diego - War Chant.” The song is a parody of the original Monkees theme. At the end, we hear a bang and we see footage from the Vietnam War. But wait, isn’t this supposed to be a film for teen fans of a rock group? Nicholson and Rafelson are clearly using the Monkees as a vehicle for a lot more than destroying the popularity of a simple rock group.
The rest of Head is a bizarre trip through a stream of consciousness, filled with brilliant set-pieces of the group trying to break free from their confines. In one sequence, the group is filming a Western, but Micky can’t take it anymore, breaking the fourth wall by even telling Rafelson that he can’t do it anymore. In another, raving girls are going nuts before they perform Michael’s “Circle Sky,” while we see shots of the four of them in front of a stain-glass window praying.
The film also features a potpourri of seemingly random celebrities, from ‘50s matinee idol Victor Mature (who plays the ‘Big Vic’) to original Mickey Mouse Club member Annette Funicello. Davy even gets the chance to box against Sonny Liston.
If Head is an achievement of anything, it is editing. Rafelson put together an amazing piece to show what film can do when you know how to edit. Just watch Davy sing and dance to Harry Nilsson’s “Daddy’s Song.” It’s an amazing sequence.
Head was a complete bomb but who could blame Americans for not wanting to see a crazy, possibly self-indulgent work that, to this day, is confusing? Its lack of any kind of narrative can make the film a grueling, boring experience and it certainly can’t be considered as timeless as the music. Probably the best thing to come out of the film was that, by destroying the Monkees, Rafelson, Schneider and Nicholson were able to move on to make Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. Still, Head remains an interesting time capsule and can easily be used by anyone as a blueprint to destroy a career.