Head: The Monkees' Strange Movie

Neatorama presents a guest post from actor, comedian, and voiceover artist Eddie Deezen. Visit Eddie at his website.

The Monkees were a Beatles-inspired TV pop group consisting of Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, Peter Tork, and Mike Nesmith. For two seasons (1966-1968) the band starred in a very entertaining, creative, and ground-breaking TV series, based mainly on the Beatles' hit movie A Hard Day's Night, and featuring the band's zany comedy and some excellent songs.

The genesis of Head, which was to be the one and only film made by The Monkees, was a weekend in early 1968, spent in Ojai, California, in which the four Monkees, plus Bob Rafelson and then B-movie actor Jack Nicholson, turned on a tape recorder and randomly took turns verbally tossing ideas into it. These "ideas" were to become the basis and script for Head.

The ill-fated movie got off on the wrong foot from the first day of filming on February 11, 1968. A rock-bottom budget of $750,000 was scraped together to finance Head (during production, the film had the working title Changes).

The four Monkees wanted a writing credit for the ideas they'd contributed to the script, but producers Rafelson and Bert Schneider denied them their request. This caused an upset resulting in three of the four group members not showing up on the set for the first day of shooting. Only Peter Tork was present, as Davy, Micky, and Mike staged their revolt and stayed home. The three did show up the next day, but the damage was done. The "three Monkee revolt" severely damaged the working relationship (and friendship) between the group and the producers.

The semi-hostile relationship was characterized by Rafelson and Schneider playing cutting edge albums loudly on the set and saying things like "Now that's really rock and roll!," in order to bait the Monkees about their pop, bubblegum-style music and image.

The cast of Head was quite eclectic and included Annette Funicello (just two years from her last "beach party" film), boxer Sonny Liston, singer Frank Zappa, a young Terri Garr, Green Bay Packer linebacker Ray Nitschke, and the Radio City Rockettes, plus Mike Nesmith's wife and Davy Jones' wife (both in uncredited cameos). Veteran actor Victor Mature signed on, too, after reading the script, which he admittedly did not understand at all: "All I know is, it made me laugh." Mature's character in Head was "the Big Victor." This was reportedly a jab at RCA Victor, the company that released the Monkees' records and who owned and aired the TV show The Monkees. Even Jack Nicholson and friend Dennis Hopper made brief cameos. But even this mixed group of talented people could not save Head.

The film had no opening credits. Early on, a song sung by The Monkees gives us an idea of what is to come: "We hope you like our story, although there isn't one, that is to say there's many, that way there is more fun." From there, the film morphs into what many describe as something resembling an "acid trip," filled with stock footage of other movies, stream-of-consciousness dialogue, in-jokes, and nonsensical scenes. There was much psychedelia and a few reference to the Vietnam War. The basic premise of the film was the Monkees "unmaking" of their clean-cut TV images as "puppet-like entertainers."

Many "inside" references to The Monkees TV show and the characters the boys played on it were in Head. In one scene, the Monkees walk into the studio commissary and a cattle stampede rushes out. In real life, many performers disliked The Monkees during the first season of their show and would deliberately walk out of the studio commissary when the boys entered.

Many references to "the box" are seen in Head. In real life, during the filming of The Monkees TV show, the boys would often get bored and wander off. So the studio created "the Box," a large black room for the four boys to relax in between scenes, where they would study the script, play music, compose, or smoke (they weren't allowed to smoke on the set). Colored lights were added inside "the box," which would light up to indicate which Monkee was needed on the set.

Film continuity was pretty much disregarded in Head (Annette Funicello is called "Teresa" before a boxing scene in the film, but in the end credits she is billed as "Minnie").

In one scene with Micky Dolenz, the then-current Coca-Cola jingle is played in the background. The Coca-Cola company was not amused and tried to file an injunction against the movie. When Head reappeared on cable and video in 1986, Columbia Pictures was owned by Coca-Cola and the issue was forgotten.

In many scenes, only three Monkees appear on screen. This was supposedly in reference to the "three monkeys," as in "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." A few Beatles references are thrown in. In one scene, Ringo Starr is mentioned. In another, Peter Tork whistles "Strawberry Fields Forever" as he walks into the restroom.

Even some of the end credits of Head boggle the mind -they were actually printed backwards as the "reversed" cast, i.e. Srebmahc Yrret as Oreh (Terry Chambers as Hero) and Revaew Adnil as Yraterces Revol (Linda Weaver as Lover Secretary).

Production on Head wrapped on May 21, 1968. A disastrous preview of the finished film took place in Los Angeles, which caused the filmmakers to cut the one hour and 50 minute movie to just 86 minutes. The movie was still untitled at the screening.

One day, Jack Nicholson was at the studio where he saw Mike Nesmith working on the Head soundtrack. Jack asked if he could help, and to his surprise, Nesmith left and turned the whole thing over to him, saying "I just want to go home." Thus, the soundtrack to Head features a genuine Jack Nicholson co-written song called "Ditty Diego--War Chant."

(YouTube link)

The simple fact underlying the massive failure of Head (besides the obvious fact that it was just not a very good movie) was that The Monkees fans did not want to see a psychedelic avant garde-type film, and the "drug hippie crowd" looked down on the Monkees with a mixture of scorn and disinterest. Knowing this, the studio launched a weak promotional campaign which had nothing to do with the Monkees. It was  probably a film first, a promo campaign deliberately not mentioning the film's stars. A misleading campaign was launched featuring a bald man's face, again, I repeat, making no mention of The Monkees. This, plus a "sticker campaign," a blitz of Head stickers featuring the bald man being suck up around towns showing the film.

The film was released in November of 1968, just two months after the cancellation of The Monkees TV series. Even in limited release, it opened to an almost unbelievably anemic box office take of $16,111. Reviews were predictably savage and Head quickly vanished from theaters. One month later, in December of 1968, Peter Tork officially quit The Monkees.

Head's TV broadcast premiere was on the CBS Late Movie on December 30, 1974. It was Mike Nesmith's 32nd birthday and Davy Jones 29th.

Head has its place in cinematic history as a bit of a cult film and a curiosity as The Monkees only film, and also because of the involvement of Jack Nicholson. Jack, as we all know, would soon launch a distinguished film career with his starring role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). He eventually won three Academy Awards and became a huge superstar, quite possibly the greatest film actor of the last several decades. Jack Nicholson seems to be one of the rare few who loves the movie Head. Quote: "I saw it, like, 158 million times, man. I loved it."

In recent years, Micky Dolenz has also said he is "proud" of the film. Despite its colossal failure, a sequel to Head has been discussed by the filmmakers, periodically, over the intervening years since its initial release. The catchy promotional phrase: "From the people who gave you Head" might almost have made it all worthwhile.

(YouTube link)

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I'd alwasy assumed that the producers' final revenge on the Monkees was to ensure, in the edit, that the movie made no sense.

I've certainly heard that said of the movies sudden ending.
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In the small town of my childhood, I went to see every movie that came to town (2 a week). Even at my young age, I was used to psychedelic films, but came away from this one realizing that they were trying WAY too hard to be "cool."
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Thanks Eddie for that insight into the Monkee's movie HEAD. I was always a Monkees fan and thought a lot of their songs were classics but to be honest I never knew a lot about their movie until now. I was aware they made HEAD but have never seen it and not sure I will. Looks like a VERY BAD attempt at making a similar Magical Mystery Tour. Nice touch by the way with the YouTube clips you added. It helped with seeing actual footage of the film instead of imagining it which in this case wouldn't have been anything like the real thing. Pretty cool knowing Jack Nicholson was in it but back then he needed the work. I'm surprised Peter Fonda didn't have a cameo. That movie was right up his alley. But the one thing that HEAD proved was that no matter how hard they tried, The Monkees would never come close to being as successful as The Beatles were. Let's face it...if The Beatles had made HEAD, all of us Beatles fans would still be praising the movie...and still flabbergasted that it didn't win an Oscar...LOL
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