Hey Hey The Monkees' HEAD approaches 50 years old

In a few years from now, in what will feel like the blink of an eye, the industry that includes motion picture arts and sciences will begin announcing the 50th anniversary of HEAD, a film that ‘showcases’ THE MONKEES, a manufactured music group of the 1960s.

The band evolved from the creation of the TV series of the same name, based around the zany everyday antics of 4 guys who happened to be musicians, wanting Beatles-like success. With the TV series launching on-air in 1966, Davy Jones, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork and Mickey Dolenz starred in the series, and although they were hired as actors cast to play musicians, Mickey Dolenz himself later said, “The actor-musicians soon became a successful real band.”

The sitcom was cancelled in 1968, but the band continued to record music through until 1971. The Monkees have actually sold more than 75 million records worldwide and had international hits including "Last Train to Clarksville", "Pleasant Valley Sunday", "Daydream Believer" and "I'm a Believer". At their peak in 1967, the band outsold the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined.

For that reason, after the series ended, producers of the TV show decided ‘the band’ needed to feature in their own movie, given the success of efforts made by the Beatles with their “Help” and “Hard Day’s Night” cinema releases.

But anyone expecting a similar kind of cinema experience with Head was deeply disappointed, and that reflected in the box office takings for the film. The producers commissioned Jack Nicholson (yep, THE Jack Nicholson) to assist with scripting and producing the film, and anecdotes suggest the ‘storylines’ (or lack thereof) were developed with the band while on a long weekend bender. That appears obvious when watching the film.

The motion picture itself is the ‘antitheses’ of the TV series and the manufactured history of the band. The boppy "Hey Hey" theme song from the TV show is replaced with a spoken alternative, tearing shreds from the superficial nature of the TV production, the lack of storyline in the film, and the buckets of money made by the band. At one point in the film, during Michael’s birthday scene, he’s asked how it feels to be a millionaire so young. He then describes how revolting it is, similar to how he feels about Christmas.

Exposing the failures of the establishment at the time, raising the hippie culture of free love and drug experimentation, poking fun at the Beatles’ reverence to Eastern spiritualism, and pointedly cutting-in vision of brutal Vietnam warfare,  the film intended to comprehensively demolish the group's carefully groomed public image. In one scene, Peter Tork is heard whistling “Strawberry Fields.”

But watching the film, with almost 50 years of hindsight, the obvious subtexts are strikingly confronting. It’s an anarchistic romp painted within a nose-thumbing late-1960s psychedelic motion picture. It’s tainted with loathing for the entire ‘franchise’ and aspects of the world at that time.

Indeed, much that is represented as being ‘wrong’ during that part of history could be easily translated to today. On more than one occasion in the film, a Coca-Cola vending machine is destroyed via large calibre gunfire, perhaps in response to rising corporatisation and consumerism in the US. In another scene, screaming fans invade the stage during a performance, tearing clothes off the band, which are then revealed to be department store mannequins – another statement about the band’s manipulated and manufactured past.

Many of the scenes break the ‘4th wall’ revealing the film-making process in action, with some shots set around an obvious film lot with gigantic warehouse-like studio exteriors. In this, there’s little respect given to the magic of traditional film-making, while at the same time using the medium of motion pictures to make a statement. In fact, the film makes many statements. It’s a great time capsule of subversive versus conservative thoughts of the 1960s decade.

Watching through ‘modern’ eyes, the messages apparent in the film are significant, albeit interspersed with frivolous skylarking. The film is worth another look as it approaches the 50th anniversary.

The Monkees' latest album "Good Times" is now available and enjoying favourable reviews.