Thursday, 8 April 2010

Head (1968)

The late 60s saw Hollywood discover the counter-culture, and produced a wave of psychedelic movies as a desperate attempt to capture the youth market. These movies ranged from cringe-inducingly awful to surprisingly interesting. One of the oddest of them all was Head, starring The Monkees.

By 1968 it was all over for The Monkees. Their records were no longer selling and their TV show had been cancelled. They were never going to gain the recognition they craved, and their commercial standing was non-existent. Their fan base had collapsed. This would normally be seen as a bad thing, but by this time the band no longer cared, and just wanted it all to be over.

What this gave them was a a wonderful sense of freedom. So when Rob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson wanted to make a Monkees movie, the band were happy to let the do whatever they wanted. They no longer cared abou
t their image, and they were prepared to do anything at all.

The results were very strange indeed. Head is a bizarre mix of music video,
teen movie, drug movie, counter-culture movie, anti-war film, avant-garde surrealist art film ad the sort of general all-round weirdness you got in those days if you were rash enough to let Jack Nicholson run amok.

Of course much of it doesn’t work, but that’s part of its charm. What’s surprising though is that a good deal of it does work, in its own strange way. Sudden switches from horrific war scenes to concert footage to sequences in which the band play the role of dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair and get sucked into a gigantic vacuum cleaner, and then suddenly the boys are in a western movie until they become bored and walk straight through the scenery which turns out to
be cardboard and find themselves in the middle of a surprise birthday party for Mike Nesmith - this sort of thing has no right to work, but somehow it does.

The political elements are the least successful, as you’d expect in a late 60s movie. Fortunately they’re not overdone, and the overall tone is an odd mix of whimsy and weirdness. Despite their perennial frustration with not being taken seriously the band is happy to make fun of its own teeny-bopper image, because it simply no longer mattered.

This is a Monkees movie without any hit songs, because by this time they didn’t have any hit songs any more. But in fact the music isn’t bad at all. By this stage they were writing a lot of their own material and the film includes a couple of acid-rock songs written by Peter Tork that are actually a good deal better than much of the embarrassingly pompous drug-addled acid-rock that was being churned out at the time by bands who really were taken se
riously. As an acid-rock band The Monkees were certainly more convincing than the Rolling Stones during their psychedelic-rock phase that produced such horrors as We Love You and She’s a Rainbow.

And Mike Nesmith’s Circle Sky demonstrates that Nesmith was already a very accomplished somg-writer. The great irony of The Monkees’ career was always the fact that they were a great band if only you could get past the bubblegum-pop image.

To appreciate Head you’ll certainly need a fair degree of tolerance for off-the-wall experimental 1960s film-making and you’ll need a certain degree of fondness for the band as well. But if you can manage those two things you’ll find this to be an unexpectedly intriguing little movie.

The DVD release is a bit disappointing - it’s fullscreen and very very grainy, although given the mixture of concert and documentary footage used in addition to newly shot scenes some of the graininess may well be intentional.

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