Somewhere between brilliance and utter confusion sits an apt descriptor for the 1968 Monkees vehicle, Head. It was written in mind for the television-based pop group, whose popularity was already on the decline by the time the film was being conceived by the Monkees and writers Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack) and Bob Rafelson. In its Wikipedia page, it is said that the writers and the Monkees holed themselves up in an Ojai hotel room smoking weed and taking LSD to brainstorm ideas for the film, and it shows. Head is a non-linear mashup of scenes that that don’t necessarily add up, but are meant to serve as a social commentary on their fame. It stars the Monkees— Mickey Dolenz, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork. Various musical performances are also peppered in somewhere between vignettes.
Now, I’ve never seen an episode of The Monkees‘ original television show, but I’m keen to the fact that it was meant to be satirical of teenage rock celebrities and the absurdity of stardom. Head, however, is on another level. There’s a clear sense it’s grasping for art film credibility, from the fantastical opening sequence to the random inclusion of footage of the execution of Viet Cong member Nguyen Van Lem. The film mainly jumps around as the fellas traverse different scenarios, from being on the front lines of the Vietnam War, the desert, inside a vacuum cleaner, concerts, and a meta movie studio where all of these worlds collide.
Movies like Head are a hard watch because there’s no clear outline of a plot to follow along to, nor much of an explanation for how they get to wherever they are. What I find so endlessly fascinating about it is how the freaking Monkees are involved in it. Not just them but stars like Frank Zappa, Victor Mature, Dennis Hopper, Annette Funicello, and Sonny Liston, to name a few. They all are party to this bizarre sequence of happenings, and they all pretty much swing for the fences without a hint of eye rolling. To explain Head and its existence, well, you’d just have to have been there in the ’60s, I guess. It was a time when experimental film was at its apex, and filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, Jeff Keen and Andy Warhol played with the medium. Even Jim Henson made his own experimental films.
To no one’s surprise, Head was appreciated by no one at the time of its release, although now it’s received the full cult following treatment and has been included in the Criterion Collection. I appreciate it for its zany, madcap energy, its Alice in Wonderland, down-the-rabbit-hole theme and its oozing of 1960s psychedelia. Also, I mostly just live for weird shit like this.
The Porpoise is laughing “goodbye, goodbye.” Head is available to stream on Youtube (in full— for now), but if you want to buy it, it is available for purchase from the Criterion Collection.
Special h/t goes to Matt Coker for also turning me on to an interview with Mickey Dolenz on Head as he guest stars on Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, which you can listen to here.
Aimee Murillo is calendar editor and frequently covers film and previously contributed to the OCW’s long-running fashion column, Trendzilla. Don’t ask her what her favorite movie is unless you want to hear her lengthy defense of Showgirls.