Thursday, June 19, 2008

An appreciation of "Head," the Monkees movie

I don't own many DVDs (relatively speaking). The movies I want to own are the ones that I know I'll be revisiting often. "Head," the 1968 film starring the Monkees is one of them.

Many people will probably stop at that last sentence. They might agree that the Monkees' TV program was pleasant fluff, entertaining to tweens, perhaps, but not of any value. And besides -- wasn't it basically a ripoff of "Help?" and "A Hard Day's Night," anyway? Wouldn't a Monkee movie just be more of the same?

One would think so, but "Head" turned out to be something totally different. Individually, the Monkees were more than ready to shed their bubblegum "Pre-fab Four" image, and "Head" was how they were going to do it.

The film is a stream-of-consciousness series of surrealistic vignettes that not only strip away the teenybopper image of the group, but examines what young people considered to be the core issues in 1968. Police brutality and authoritarianism are lampooned, as well as the pervasiveness of the media (remember, this was the age of Marshall McLuhan) and how it distorts reality.

Eastern philosophies come into play, and the absence of causality is a major plot point. At the very least, "Head" is a time capsule of late 1960s attitudes, culture and fashion. But it's more than that.

A segment leading into an anti-war skit begins with news footage of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in the street. The sight of this very real execution pulls the viewer up short -- it's not played for laughs. The murder is meant to shock and it does. And it colors what follows and the rest of the film as well. This is not a movie for preteens.

And the music is more sophisticated, too. Here's a good example from the opening. "The Porpoise Song," a Gerry Goffin/Carole King composition is quintessential psychedelica.

"Head" also has the strangest supporting cast of any movie. In addition to the Monkees, there's also Victor Mature playing, well, Victor Mature. Annette Funicello parodies the kind of roles she was famous for, and football great Sonny Liston appears as an odd version of a football player.

Bob Raphelson and Bert Schneider, who produced the Monkee's TV show, produced the movie, along with their friend Jack Nicholson (who also makes a very brief cameo). Terri Garr's in "Head," along with Dennis Hopper, and character actors Timothy Carey and Vitto Scotti.

And if the woman dancing with Davy Jones in "Daddy's Song" looks familiar, there's a reason. It's Toni Basil, who not only appeared the film but did the choreography (yes, the same Toni Basil who sang "Micki" in the 1980's and choreographed "That Thing You Do" in 1996).

And that really was Frank Zappa, offering his critique of Jones' number at the end.

 Some of what "Head" is about remains locked into 1968. But not everything. Consider this quote from an industrialist/scientist giving the Monkees a tour of a state-of-the-art factory.
Leisure, the inevitable byproduct of our civilization. A new world, who's only occupation will be how to amuse itself. The tragedy of your times, my young friends, is that you may get exactly what you want.
The trailer doesn't do the film any justice, but since it wasn't released until 1971 it didn't really matter. No one knew what "Head" was about, everyone had moved on from the Monkees, and from the aesthetics of the late 1960's in general.

It's a movie that yields additional insights and surprises every time I watch it, which is why it's a DVD I own. And truth to tell, sometimes when I take a jaundiced look at the world around us, I have to wonder if perhaps we aren't living in that new world, who's only occupation is how to amuse itself.

- Ralph

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