Last night, I turned over to TCM and I watched the 1968 film Head.
Why Was I Watching It?
Though Head was a notorious box office bomb when it was released in 1968, it has since become notorious as one of the most incomprehensible movies ever made. Every book that I’ve ever read about film or pop culture in the 1960s makes mention of Head. Not only was the film written by a pre-Easy Rider Jack Nicholson, but the film also featured The Monkees literally acting out against their stardom by committing career suicide by appearing the film that was apparently conceived while Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson were tripping on LSD. I’ve read about Head in dozens of books and I’ve seen it described as being “a surreal masterpieces,” “an incomprehensible, pretentious mess,” and “a total head trip of a film.” Having now seen the film, I can say that’s all true.
I do have to admit that before I saw Head, I didn’t know who the Monkees were. Don’t get me wrong — I knew that there was a band in the 60s called The Monkees and I knew that they had their own TV show. Thanks to the fact that The Brady Bunch Movie played on cable for like two months straight earlier this year, I knew which one was Davey Jones. But, that was about it. Even after seeing Head, I’m still not really sure I could tell you which was one was Mickey Dolenz and which one was Peter Tork. I also have to admit that I spent the first half of the film referring to Michael Nesmith as the “Texan with the sideburns.”
Fortunately, I watched Head with two wonderful groups of people on twitter — the TCM Party and the Drive-In Mob. They came together last night and provided a very entertaining live tweet session devoted to the film. Unlike me, they actually knew one Monkee from another and following their tweets helped me survive the film’s rough first half. To all of them, I say “Thank you for the education.”
What’s It About?
That’s not an easy question to answer but I’ll try.
The Monkees jump off a bridge and plunge into the psychedelic waters below but they’re saved from drowning by a bunch of mermaids. This, of course, leads to the four members of the groups finding themselves in scenes from a war film, a boxing film, a western film, and eventually they discover that they’re actually dandruff on the head of actor Victor Mature. Ultimately, they end up wandering around on a studio backlot where they’re menaced by veteran scary actor Timothy Carey and an ominous black box that seems to intent on trapping them. The Monkees react to this by running for their lives, complaining to Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson about the script, and telling everyone that they meet that they’re just actors in a film. Eventually, it appears that the Monkees don’t have any options left beyond committing public suicide but Rafelson has other ideas…
If you’re as obsessed with pop cultural history as I am, Head is one of those films that simply you have to see. Even if you find the film to be totally incomprehensible and just a tad bit pretentious, Head is a valuable artifact of its time. Head is a film that could have only been made in the late 60s and it epitomizes everything about the age that produced it. It’s like a cinematic Pompeii.
Now, I have to admit that most of the enjoyment I got out of the first half of the film came more from my own curiosity as a secret history nerd than from the film itself. However, the second half of the film is often times genuinely entertaining. The satire is a bit sharper and the overall theme (i.e., the struggle to maintain your own unique individuality in a world that demands conformity) starts emerge from the film’s mix of surreal images.
For me, the film really picked up with Davy Jones’ performance of Daddy’s Song:
The woman dancing with Davy Jones was Toni Basil, who choreographed all the dance numbers in this film.
Here’s another sequence that I particularly enjoyed. This came towards the end of the film and, as I said on twitter, who doesn’t enjoy a little psychedelic dancing?
What Did Not Work?
While Head had all the virtues of its time, it also had all the flaws. It’s a definite hit-and-miss affair, with the stronger (and occasionally insightful) moments uneasily balanced with plenty of sequences that dragged. As you may have guessed, Head is the type of film that’s brilliant if you’re in the mood for it but it’s rather annoying if you’re not.
“Oh my God! Just like me!” Moments
I would have loved to have been Toni Basil, dancing with Davy Jones in the Daddy’s Song number.
Watching Head, I realized that I had discovered this year’s perfect Christmas present. I’m going to get a 100 copies of Head on DVD and give them out to everyone I know. That way, I’ll have an excuse to call everyone up in November and tell them, “Don’t worry, I’m giving you Head for Christmas.” I think, if nothing else, that’ll make me a very popular girl come December.