Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 24 August 2005
Source Rhino DVD
Equal parts good trip, bad trip, and cheesefest, the Monkees’ feature film is not merely an interesting historical document, but a satisfying (and even occasionally impressive) piece of counterculture. Filmed after the cancellation of their television series, Head showcases the band’s actual musical talents as it knowingly plays with their status as a media creation.
Directed by Bob Rafelson and co-written by Rafelson and Jack Nicholson, the film both subverts and exploits the band members’ fabricated personae. Peter is still the “dumb one,” but now with moments of profundity; Micky is still the “sexy one,” but now with a dash of effeminacy; Mike is still the level-headed Southerner, but now with a bit of a temper; and Davy is … well, he’s still like a weird 11-year old boy. But these traits are willfully obscured by the film’s many musical performances, all of which are in some way impressive, many of which are excellent. Micky Dolenz delivers stunning Grace Slick-like performances on two beautiful, spacey Carole King numbers; Mike Nesmith provides the shit-kicking rocker, “Circle Sky”; and Peter Tork offers two fine, Summer-of-Love jams. Davy Jones’ contribution, at the other extreme, is a music hall rendition of a Harry Nilsson song that is so nauseating it becomes fascinating. Once it is over, Frank Zappa appears (with a cow, for some reason) to tell Davy that it was a little too white for his taste.
But beyond the more-or-less predictable Monkees vaudeville, the film proves its intelligence in subtle and unsubtle ways. It is filled with wink-wink asides and broad digs at American hegemony, popular culture, the government, and Coca-Cola. At various times, the plot (such as it is) finds the Pre-Fab Four trapped inside a black box, a factory, and a series of strange and humiliating TV spots. They explicitly comment on their “characters” and how they are supposed to be portrayed onscreen. (Tork whines to Rafelson and Nicholson about whether it will hurt his image if he punches a woman in one scene of the film.) More curiously, the film also makes some of the first pop-culture use of the famous Tet Offensive execution footage, a bold move for a mostly light (if acid-drenched) film that was subsequently rated G.
This brings us the requisite LSD freak-outs, which serve their purpose quite well, but are handled with an uncommon technical facility. The opening sequence features Micky Dolenz floating with mermaids in rainbow-colored water to the tune of King’s “Porpoise Song” (“The porpoise is laughing, ‘Goodbye! Goodbye!’”, etc.). Later, numerous other visual tricks are employed to create a variety of similarly disorienting set-pieces. Indeed, it is a wonder that anyone involved in the project remained sober enough to even spell “optical printer,” let alone operate one. But here the editing and visual effects are wonderfully effective, even if they occasionally may seem like the prototype of a cliché.