Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The 50th Anniversary of The Monkees' Movie Head

It was 50 years ago that Head (1968), best known as the only feature film to star The Monkees, premiered in New York City. Its premiere was only around two months after the last episode of the TV shows The Monkees had aired on NBC. While the show had only been a moderate success in the Nielsen ratings, the band created for that show, also called The Monkees, had proven to be an enormous success on the record charts, with four number one albums and three number one singles to their credit. Unfortunately, Head would see the beginning of a slow decline for the band. The film would bomb at the box office, while the soundtrack album would peak at only no. 45 on the Billboard albums chart. Despite its lack of initial success, Head has since become a cult film and is highly regarded even by those Monkees fans who might not have understood it upon first seeing it.

Like the TV show The Monkees itself, Head originated with director and producer Bob Rafelson. According to Mr. Rafelson's daughter Gabrielle in an article in The Guardian published in 2011, with the film he wanted to tell about The Monkees' "...manipulation, protest and substantial talents. He felt the true story, in abstract [form], would be more than worth the telling." Bob Rafelson introduced The Monkees to one of his friends, actor and screenwriter Jack Nicholson. It was in late 1967 that Bob Rafelson, Jack Nicholson, and The Monkees met at a hotel in Ojai Valley, California to brainstorm the movie, reportedly with assistance from a good deal of marijuana. A tape recorder was kept running the whole time and Jack Nicholson used the resultant tapes to write the screenplay. Bob Rafelson later claimed he developed the film's structure while on LSD.

Given the fact that they had taken part in the brainstorming session for the movie that would come to be called Head, The Monkees were none too happy when they learned they would not be given screenwriting credit. Led by Michael Nesmith, The Monkees except for Peter Tork, staged a walk-out on the first day of shooting. Michael Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz, and Davy Jones returned only after an agreement was struck to pay The Monkees more money. Unfortunately, the damage was already done to the relationship between The Monkees and Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider. After Head, The Monkees would never work with the man who created the show on which they had starred again.

Head would go through various titles before its premiere on November 6 1968. One of its working titles during production was Changes. For a preview screening in Los Angeles in August, it was simply called Movee Untitled. It was ultimately titled Head partially as a drug reference and partially so Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider's next production could be advertised as coming "..from the guys who gave you Head."Of course, their next production would be Easy Rider (1969).

Unfortunately there would be signs that Head would not go over well even before its premiere. The aforementioned preview in Los Angeles in August 1968 proved to be disastrous. After the preview screening the film was edited down from its original 118 minutes to 86 minutes. The film's initial promotional campaign probably did not help matters. Posters simply featured a head shot of then multimedia artist John Brockman (later a literary agent) with the title of the film. After Head moved from limited release in New York City to wide release across the nation, Columbia Pictures would retain the "John Brockman" campaign while launching a more traditional campaign that sought to capitalise on The Monkees as the stars of the movie.

Upon its initial release Head received definitely mixed reviews. Renta Adler of The New York Times gave the film a somewhat negative review, writing that it "..might be a film to see if you have been smoking grass or if you like to scream at The Monkees, or if you are interested in what interests drifting heads and hysteric high school girls." The Motion Picture Herald gave the film a much more positive review, stating, "The humour, format and comment of Head make it attractive, entertaining and welcome." The review in Daily Variety fell somewhat between these two extremes. In the end, critics came to no real consensus with regards to Head, with some liking the film, some disliking the film, and some simply indifferent towards it.

While critics gave the film mixed reviews, audiences simply avoided Head. Ultimately it only made about $16,000 at the box office, far short of its admittedly meagre $790,000 budget. Much of the problem with Head might have been the fact that the movie was made to appeal to the counterculture, who largely considered The Monkees personae non gratae. At a screening in Greenwich Village, many in the audience walked out of the film the moment The Monkees appeared on screen. At the same time Head probably did not appeal to The Monkees' core audience, who at that time consisted primarily of teenagers and children.

Indeed, in some respects Head was a far cry from the TV show The Monkees. The film touched upon much darker material than the sitcom ever had, including war and the downsides of celebrity. To a large degree Head even deconstructed The Monkees themselves. At the same time, however, Head is not as far removed from the TV show The Monkees as some people have claimed over the years. It shared with the series the same freewheeling, often surreal humour and parodies of such established genres as war movies and Westerns. In between various sequences would be what could only be described as Monkees romps (such as "Can You Dig It" performed in a harem).

Indeed, music is as important a part of Head as it was the TV series. The film featured songs by The Monkees themselves ("Circle Sky" by Michael Nesmith and "Can You Dig It?" and "Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?" by Peter Tork),  Carole King (who co-wrote "Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)" with Gerry Goffin and "As We Go Along" with Toni Stein), and Harry Nilsson ("Daddy's Song"). Interestingly enough, the Head  soundtrack would be the only album to feature no songs by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who wrote the bulk of The Monkees' hits.

Despite the failure of Head at the box office and its mixed reception from critics in 1968, the film has since developed a cult following. It made its television debut on The CBS Late Movie on December 30 1974 and has since been shown on many other television outlets, including Turner Classic Movies. Among the many fans of Head are directors Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino. And while many Monkees fans in 1968 may have been puzzled by Head, today it is loved by many Monkees fans. Head may have flopped in 1968, but it has since become a success.

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