How the Monkees' Flop Flick Became a Cult Classic

How the Monkees' Flop Flick Became a Cult Classic
Columbia Pictures

The Monkees, Head, and the '60s
By Peter Mills
Jawbone Press, 336 pp., $19.95

By the spring of 1968, the two-season stint of the Monkees' TV show had come to an end, a vehicle that rocketed the “Pre-Fab Four" to massive success, millions of records sales and a string of hits (“Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m a Believer,” “Daydream Believer,” “Pleasant Valley Sunday”). And tickets to live concerts where the quartet showed, to counter early bad publicity, that they could indeed play their own instruments.

That left Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Davy Jones at a crossroads: How could they further their career as a band away from the goofy, teen-targeted show and into something for a hipper crowd as their own musical and personal interests developed? The answer they and producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider came up with was fairly logical: Make a movie! But not like the show!

Released in late 1968, Head was an unabashed flop, taking in less than $20,000 at the box office and screening in only six theaters. It also started the chain of events that led to the band’s limping dissolution. So much for continued Monkee Business.

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The surrealistic, bizarre film (with concepts/script by the band, their producers, a manager and…Jack Nicholson!) was a series of vignettes and musical performances in which the band at times acted as pieces of dandruff, were sucked by a vacuum cleaner and were trapped by a mysterious black box. Other set pieces included a steam room, a strip club, an underwater pool, a haunted house and a boxing ring.

The nonlinear script and visuals also made veiled (and not-so-veiled) commentary on the Vietnam war, the media, consumerism, fame, power and even the Monkees themselves. Most shocking, it juxtaposed real and violent war footage – and an actual execution – with scenes of the band onstage to screaming kids.

Ultimately, it was too out-there for traditional Monkees fans used to the hijinks of the TV show. And the hipsters wouldn’t be caught dead buying a ticket for a Monkees movie, even if the actual ad campaign specifically targeted to them didn't even feature the band on its poster.

However, the ensuing years have been much kinder to the film (as well as the Monkees themselves), and Head has earned a cult following, with many of its themes and camerawork seeming prescient today. And the soundtrack shows the band and its collaborators at their most out-there ("The Porpoise Song" is a psychedelic classic). Perhaps the film’s greatest champion is author Mills, an English professor who actually lectures and teaches on the movie and the band for Leeds Beckett University.

Mills gives ample textual space to the band and its members' formation, the TV show, the records, and their comings and goings with various breakups and reunions. But the crux of this book is about Head: its writing, filming, plot, soundtrack and reaction, and sometimes in a manner befitting a college professor.

That makes this book not so much for a reader looking for a definitive general history of the group and its music (which has yet to be written), but for the more hardcore Monkee Maniac. And for that group, this book pliantly offers more than enough really good Head.

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