Part II, America Lost & Found: The BBS Story
Typically, an artist with ambitions of fame will use all the usual media outlets to draw attention to themselves, to conquer. Madonna comes to mind. In the late 1960s, The Monkees, a musical foursome drafted by director Bob Rafelson and co-horts, had become an overnight success with a silly TV program and some massive record sales and highly charting singles. Maybe not exactly America's answer to The Beatles but still a significant blip on the pop radar. The TV show lasted 2 years, and all concerned wanted the business to be done with. But first, the deconstruction had to begin. That would be the 1968 movie called HEAD.
Deconstruction? Let's first consider the movie's original poster, indeed picturing a head, but it was not that of Monkees Davy Jones, Mickey Dolenz, Peter Tork, or Michael Nesmith. The Criterion disc features a 1/2 hour interview with HEAD director Rafelson who explains that the head belonged to a guy named John Brockman, a literary agent. How "punk rock" (before the genre or term even existed) to do such a thing! This is your starting point for the attitude(s) behind this project. Rafelson also explains the origins of The Monkees, how the first edit of the TV show's pilot was a miserable failure, and how a recut made it a smash. The director then remarks that the experience made him realize how pointless/subjective the idea of "quality" is.
HEAD will put that idea to perhaps its ultimate litmus test for you, invisible audience. The film is not linear, has no A-Z plotline, and is not a happy jaunt like the Beatles' A HARD DAY'S NIGHT or The Dave Clark Five's (remember them?) HAVING A WILD WEEKEND. It is remarked in the supplemental materials that you could switch the reel order and still end up at the same destination at the end of the one and one-half hour running time. The script is the result of a drug fueled round of speaking ideas into a tape recorder. The participants: Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, lost in a marijuana and LSD haze while spouting crazy thoughts in no less than Harry Dean Stanton's basement! Gotta love such trivia.
Altered consciousness begats zizgzag cinema. To wit: HEAD features several scenes of tilted camera angles while those on screen ramble around verbally and physically. Real psychadelia. Solarized footage of band members underwater and assorted hipsters shaking their forms more suggestively than in your typical G-rated movie. What to say also of the fact that the band are sucked out of Hollywood star of yesteryear Victor Mature's hair at one point?! Seems the guys were merely dandruff in the sandal epic legend's mane! This script is whacked, but has some ideas about fame.
We also get various genre spoofs, as our heroes end up in a ring with boxer Sonny Liston, in a foxhole in Vietnam, in the desert (looking much like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) firing tank artillery at stubborn Coca-Cola machines, and so on. The scenes do have a bit of satire, barbs aimed at corporate sponsorship and other targets. Lots of old movie clips are sprinkled among the flights of fancy, and to jolt the audience into sobriety, a scene of Viet Cong brutality (bullet to the head) punctuates an otherwise peppy scene or two. All is not rosy in this celluoid wrecking ball.
Of course there are also concert sequences, the most revealing involving several screaming young girls rushing the stage to attack the band, finding not flesh and blood, but rather breakable mannequins at their fingertips.
The music, by the way, is quite good. I recall from my viewings of the TV show long ago that The Monkees' tunes were typical candy pop of the day ala Herman's Hermits. In HEAD, the songs sound more ominous, and more complex. Carole King and Harry Nilsson penned a couple. The Monkees are almost a precursor for those later caustic Brits in the group 10cc, here. Even the lyrics for The Monkees' theme song get switched around more than a bit:
Hey, hey, we are The Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies.
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 money's in, we're made of tin...
Quite a contrast to the original lyrics:
Hey, hey we're the Monkees,
and people say we monkey around.
But we're too busy singing,
to put anybody down.
We're just trying to be friendly,
come watch us sing and play.
We're the young generation,
and we got something to say.
The differing style did not please their fan base ("between the ages of 9-14") and did not help this movie at the box office. The songs are one of the many tools the band and filmmakers use to debunk the rumors of the Monkees' alleged lack of talent. As well, he darker tone of the music may also be their way of setting the entire enterprise on fire. This movie addresses the vortex of sudden fame and notoreity by having Nesmith damn his own birthday party in one extended sequence, and all four retreating to a "black box" periodically, emblematic of what their public was doing to them. The box is also literal, as a similiar room was constructed just for the band during the TV show's filmings.
A mishmash like HEAD is great fun for some, rubbish to others. I'm certain that more than one viewer will tell you that a good hit off of a skull pipe helps one make better sense of it. Others who may not have changed the bong water recently may be just as confused as John Q. Citizen. The Monkees themselves, in a recently recorded commentary for HEAD, explain that you may as well ask Nicholson what he was trying to say. The foursome did not have their ideas interjected into this movie.
You can take in the whole affair as a 90 minute trippy music video, or perhaps as a colorful statement on the themes we discussed above. Even Frank Zappa shows up in HEAD at one point (along with a talking cow) to advise Jones to focus on his music rather than a showy dance routine that we just saw (complete with the sort of jump cut editing commonly seen in French New Wave pics prior and on MTV years later). That brief commentary is evidence further that the Monkees were trying to bring across their frustration on a larger canvas, before they (self) imploded. The movie bombed miserably at the box office, so perhaps they got their wish. Too bad more peeps didn't get to see the destruction.
Ah, but inevitably, after a few network TV airings and later videocassestte releases, a cult formed to reclaim a lost treasure, even long before Criterion gave it the royal treatment. As part of the BBS Series, the HEAD disc kicks off the set with the aforementioned Rafelson interview as well as a fascinating doc on how the trio came to form their film company and its subsequent successes. A good deal of discussion is given to how The Monkees' success on the charts provided the initial start-up cash, and EASY RIDER'S phenomenal performance continued the run before some of the more eccentric BBS titles like A SAFE PLACE slowed things a bit.
The disc also includes a recent, engaging commentary from all 4 Monkees, but they're not all in the same room, so there's no interaction among them. This was also the case for STOP MAKING SENSE. I'm not sure if this is because the former bandmmates aren't on speaking terms, but I like that each of them gets to provide his take uninterrupted. All 4 acknowledge that by the time of HEAD's filming, they had become egomaniacal monsters. Dolenz recalls how veteran thesp Hans Conreid, guest starring on their TV show, "...hated us. I don't blame him. We were such dickheads."