After the huge popularity of their TV show, their songs on the radio, and their worldwide fan clubs, The Monkees did exactly what their muses The Beatles did: they made a movie. And pretty quickly. Shortly after their eponymous sitcom was canceled in 1968, series co-creator Bob Rafelson began conceiving exactly what this movie would look like. He and his creative partner Bert Schneider had experienced numerous conflicts with their four lead performers who wanted to be a “real band.” Yet even though the guys had legit musical talent, Rafelson’s desire to control their image held sway. Undaunted, the group pressed on to play their instruments, sing their vocals, even write their own music. While Rafelson eventually caved, he still didn’t like his “creation” undermining his concept of a fictitious, made-for-TV band.
What that in mind, Rafelson envisioned a movie that would drive his “It’s a fake band!” point home — and hard. Rather than celebrate the talents of Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Michael Nesmith, he wanted to blow apart the band’s bubblegum appeal, while making sly commentary on the society that fell for the “Pre-Fab Four.” With assistance from producer Schneider and newcomer writer-actor Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson), a script was created, purportedly based on a tape the band and Rafelson created while stoned.
Named Head (allegedly, so viewers might make inadvertently crude comments like “Did you get Head?), the movie is a mashup of incongruous scenes and thoughts, ranging from commentary on the Vietnam War to various musings on the general unhappiness in their lives. Cameos from Teri Garr, Frank Zappa, Annette Funicello, and Jack Nicholson added a certain luster, but the film garnered primarily negative or mixed reviews. Its best remembered today for the soundtrack, which includes “Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)” by Carole King, “Daddy’s Song,” by Harry Nillson, and “Circle Sky,” by Nesmith. The sad truth is that Head rang the death knell of The Monkees, just as Rafelson supposedly wanted. The movie tanked; Monkees songs on the charts plummeted, future film plans were canceled and public sentiment soured.
Years later, that left it to The Monkees themselves to stage a resurrection. Nesmith wrote and directed a one-hour comedy special of sorts for ABC, bringing the original cast together for Hey, Hey, It’s the Monkees. With no Rafelson in sight, this 1997 TV movie shows the group coping with middle-aged, post Monkees-mania while reprising five of their biggest hits: “Last Train to Clarksville,” “Daydream Believer,” “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone,” “I’m a Believer,” and “Pleasant Valley Sunday.” The group was involved in all aspects of the show — which extended well beyond just being the band to also coming up with story ideas, writing the script, and composing some of the music. Much better received than Head, Nesmith’s pet project crested on the wave of popularity the group experienced following MTV’s rebroadcasts of the original series.
In February 2012, Davy Jones died at age 66, making any true reunion of the original Monkees impossible. And with all due respect to the excellent post-Jones album Good Times!, if you’re looking for more Monkees, you’re probably best off hoping for a new documentary along the lines of Making the Monkees (2007), Hey, Hey, We’re The Monkees (1997), and those official biographies that come courtesy of Behind the Music and E! True Hollywood Story. As to the New Monkees re-boot in 1987, the less said the better.
PS. Our picks for 5 Monkee’s songs that should’ve been singles. Plus, a look at their most recent album, “Good Times.”
Photo by NBC Television/Courtesy of Getty Images
Actually, the individual Monkees have expressed admiration and pride for HEAD. It gained status as an “art film” in the 70s and 80s, being shown on late night TV and in art movie houses (I saw it on a bill with 200 MOTELS). Sure, it was dysfunctionally marketed upon release, and the advertising was cryptic at best, but it also suffered from poor distribution. I don’t know how accurate it is to say that HEAD was their death knell–maybe it was their liberation. They did a bizarre but good TV special, made a few more decent LPs, and reformed many times after. I played bass on their 45th Anniversary Tour of the UK and US, and the highlight of the tour was to do the entire HEAD soundtrack, and it was fabulously received.