IT'S HAPPENED! I found a movie that I have to argue against, even though I've been rallying against intense rating systems. This movie is rated G, but there is actual footage of a guy getting shot in the head. You know that footage from Vietnam? They show the whole execution. Rated G. 1968 may have taken it too far. Man, I wish the two tones of this rating didn't give this review a Christmas vibe.
DIRECTOR: Bob Rafelson
When I was a kid, I loved The Monkees. The way I flaunt that my five year old daughter knows every Beatles song? My mom did that for me and the Monkees. The Monkees were the coolest ever. Since then, I've learned a lot about the marketing end of the music industry and I now know the reputation of the Monkees. Their songs are super cool and I weirdly want to hang out with them in 1968, but that is all under the umbrella of knowing that they were a manufactured group meant to compete with the Beatles. So when I sat down to watch a movie named Head, part of my America: Lost and Found, I was surprised to find out that it was a Monkees movie. (C'mon, like you knew all about this movie before I posted it. I bet this is the first you are hearing of it.)
The movie really rides the avant-garde thing pretty hard. I had to Wikipedia the history of the Monkees to give me some context for this film because it is pretty mindblowing. Bob Rafelson, the director of Head, actually created the Monkees. He made the TV show, the tour, the whole nine yards. He had a product that he wanted to sell and he really sold it. They were created in 1965 and the movie was made in 1968. The movie has a loose narrative about the nature of fame and how it affects all other elements of American culture. That is one of a dozen or so themes and messages within the film, so please understand that I'm not doing the movie a lick of justice trying to sum up such a crazy idea so quickly. But the movie treats The Monkees in such an odd counter-culture way that it acknowledges the facade that they present by their simple existence. There is a commentary running all the way through the movie that the music and the band are an artificial construct meant to combat the sheer power of The Beatles. Rafelson actually created The Monkees in response to A Hard Day's Night and the nods in the film cement that idea. Peter Tork actually whistles "Strawberry Fields Forever" in one scene after a long diatribe about how people think that they are fake. This is the least of the weirdness that goes on with the film. I started by stating that this is completely avant-garde and the weirdness of the movie supports it. Honestly, if I had known about this movie when I was working at Thomas Video, this would have been playing in the store during a lot of my shifts. The movie is super cool and it acknowledges that it is being weird for weirdness's sake. (I know, I'm a David Lynch hypocrite.) This movie embraces the psychedelic format of the late '60s in such an acid trippy way that it screams "Mellow out, man!" I don't know why I give the '60s a pass, but I won't give Lynch a pass. But this movie gets really weird from moment one.
The odd thing is that the movie is super pretty. Perhaps it is the psychedelic feel of the whole film, but that color palate is super groovy. The movie starts off with a very Hard Day's Night sketch of a mayor trying to open a bridge and then the Monkees run by, jump off the bridge. Okay, fine. But then there are mermaids who play with the negative image with wacky colors. That's when I realized that Head wouldn't even attempt to present the same narrative that Hard Day's Night loosely played with. There is a narrative in the sense that the boys refer to moments that happened earlier in the movie, taking away the sketch element of the film. But the narrative is more philosophy. I think that this might come from the influence of Jack Nicholson (yup) and this period in his life. The rest of the movie is insanely frenetic, mirroring a pretty intense acid trip. I really wonder if the Monkees TV show had the same level of insanity and I just blocked it out. I was pretty young when I watched it, so I can't remember much outside of a laugh track and the opening credits. The frenetic stuff is pretty hard to really pay attention to. When I became aware that the narrative was going to be loosey-goosey, I had to force myself to pay attention to the story. I'm never a big fan of people just spouting philosophy at me, so it is always a little hard for me to invest as much as following plot. I know, I'm a simpleton. But the movie is more engaging than, say, your Koyannisqatsis because there is an attempt, albeit slight, to relate to its audience. There are jokes and there is a bit of charm to it. I technically could label Head as a musical. I actually wonder if it could be considered a musical, simply because the music and dancing is a way to entrench the movie further into the bizarre. I guess there's no rules against that, but the music in the film is only meant to make the acid trip all the more bizarre. (Let me establish right now that I don't do drugs. I have never done drugs. I will never do drugs. I abhor drug culture and you should never do drugs. That said, this visual acid trip was pretty cool.)
Part of what makes this movie work (or not work, because it bombed at the box office at the time) was the fact that the Monkees are both charming and self-depricating. The very concept of the Monkees is a hilarious one. I'm ashamed to make this comparison, but the Monkees were the Deadpool of their era. (Let me explain!) Deadpool is a superhero who is uniquely self-aware. As such, he is a critic of the entire medium of comic books and film. The Monkees are kind of the same way. They point out the artificiality of art and music. By doing so, they are actually creating a deeper kind of art. Their depth lies in their superficiality. They are commenting on the culture that elevated them to icon status and they think it's dumb. Okay, I don't know that part for sure. But this is counter-culture, baby! Money and fame are an artificial construct. I have to wonder if the audience of the Monkees were clamoring for a band that was so openly anti-establishment, so thus the Monkees became anti-establishment while secretly being rich jerks. But the movie gets so inside baseball that only a knowledge of the context of the era makes the movie all that much more important. There are moments in the movie, like the inclusion of evil giant Victor Mature, that are so on the nose culturally that the movie dares the viewer to try to avoid making sense of the whole thing. Add to that the almost lifted narrative from A Hard Day's Night of the missing Davey Jones. Sure, Davey Jones was the most popular of the Monkees in comparison to the missing Ringo, but the story kind of plays out the same way. The movie then delves deeper into commentary about war, the Hollywood studio system, the damaging authority of the military complex and the police, and into the constant barrage of insanity that comes with fame. If anything, the movie tries to cover too much that none of it really gets too deep. But it does limit how boring the movie get. I have never seen a more preachy movie that felt like it didn't beat a dead horse. It's a weird dichotomy going on with the film as a whole.
This movie will never hit my favorite movies list. But golly, I'd love to watch it a few more times. There's something so fundamentally cool about the movie that I'd love to have it in the background for a party or something. It would completely destroy someone who didn't know what they were watching and that's pretty nifty. The look of the movie is perfect and the music is pretty fun too. It's trippy as heck and I could always use a little bit more trip in my life.
Also, that photo above? A literal Head cannon.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.