"WHAT IS HEAD? HEAD IS THE most extraordinary adventure Western comedy
love story mystery drama musical documentary ever filmed. And that's
putting it mildly."
So boasted the 1968 theatrical trailer for The Monkees' only big
screen venture. It would later be celebrated in film lore as the
project that first teamed writer-director and Monkees co-creator Bob
Rafelson with a fledgling writer/B-movie actor named Jack Nicholson,
beginning a relationship that led to Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and
beyond. Head would also later be celebrated in certain camps as a
psychedelic masterpiece - a '60s artefact that holds up better than
many countercultural statements of the era. But in 1968, Head was
Not that there wasn't a smidgen of truth in that '68 trailer's bold
claim. Head defied classification. In addition to Westerns, Head also
mimicked and lampooned such Hollywood genres as war, horror, sci-fi,
'40s boxing sagas, '60s spy flicks, desert epics, the new psychedelic
mentality (Nicholson had recently scripted the Peter Fonda vehicle The
Trip for director Roger Corman), and (of course) rock'n'roll movies.
But when Head opened nationally in six US cities on November 20, 1968
- only weeks after Richard Nixon had won the presidency, ushering in a
new era of American paranoia (which astute critics have suggested is
the state-of-mind Head often reflects) - the average person probably
didn't even know Head was a Monkees movie. Newspaper ads simply
portrayed a balding man with glasses, a slight goatee and the
question: "What is Head all about? Only John Brockman's shrink knows
Late-night television commercials also featured the visage of Brockman
(a media expert Rafelson and his partner/co-Monkees creator Bert
Schneider hired to handle the film's promotional campaign) and just
the title word -Head. The average person wasn't even certain that Head
was a movie.
"The ad was originally supposed to have a picture of me on it,"
Rafelson recalls today, "but John Brockman was a Marshall McLuhan
scholar, and said: 'It doesn't matter whose picture is on it. We're
not going to say it's The Monkees. We're just going to get people to
say, 'What's Head?' and 'Whose Head?' and basically enquire people
into the theatre.' He was afraid this picture was too radical for The
Monkees' audience, so let's allow people to discover it as an
individual movie. That was the philosophy.
"Jack and I got nervous because we'd agreed to premiere the movie in a
Spanish-speaking cinema in New York City called El Studio. It was the
first English language picture there. We went around New York saying,
'Say, I hear there's a wonderful movie at El Studio Cinema called
Head,' trying to create word-of-mouth. We ended up pasting little
'Head' stickers wherever we could. Jack tried to slip one onto the
helmet of a police officer ticketing a chestnut salesman on Fifth
Avenue. He put the sticker on the helmet just as the guy's head
turned. The cop got the sticker on his face. We were thrown up against
the wall and both of us were handcuffed - but it was Jack who went to
jail." He laughs. "I called every newspaper, every radio station, and
said, The makers of Head have been busted! Of course, nobody paid any
attention: 'The producers of a famous Hollywood movie opening where?
El Studio Cinema?! What the fuck? They must be out of their minds!'"
"In some ways they wanted it to tank," says Peter Tork, who recently
ceased touring with The Monkees to devote full attention to his LA
band, Shoe Suede Blues. "Publicity for the TV show had been perfect,
but the Head campaign couldn't have been better designed to ensure the
movie would flop."
Of course, the group's core teenybop audience - dwindling following
the cancellation of their Emmy-winning series earlier that year - knew
that Head was a Monkees film. In 16 magazine's '68 "Summer Spec"
issue, the teen bible ran photos from the film, using an imaginary
storyline with an editorial disclaimer: "Any similarity between the
story we have told here and the story you will see in The Monkees'
movie is just not possible! Since The Monkees are keeping the story a
deep, dark secret. You just gotta go see it and find out for yourself
how Davy, Micky, Peter and Mike save themselves from the (ugh!) mad
16 couldn't have had any idea at the time how prophetic their use of
the words "deep" and "dark" would actually be. "I don't think Head is
cynical," erstwhile Monkee Mike Nesmith said in a 1997 interview.
"[But] there was a darkness to the piece that dealt with the death of
a phenomenon." Head was the first time the infamous shot of a Vietcong
prisoner being shot in the head was used in a work of art. (Executive
producer Schneider used the shot again in his 1974 Oscar-winning
documentary Hearts And Minds, praised as a cultural catalyst in the
ending of the war.)
Then there was the title. The word "head" was already known in the
main-stream as having drug connotations - and surely a few parents
must have picked up on the sexual reference.
"We called it three different things at three different times,"
recalls Rafelson. "The first title, Changes, seemed best because
changes meant something at that time - to do with hallucinations, and
the cliche that the only thing you could rely on is change. And, of
course, this picture was constantly changing throughout. Then we
called it DASturb for a while. Today, everybody misspells words, but
it was very new at the time. The third title was Head. Why? First of
all, it took place in somebody's head, in Victor Mature's hair. The
Monkees were dandruff. A lot of head imagery. Secondly, we knew the
next movie we were making was Easy Rider. We wanted to bill that as
'From the producers who gave you Head!' Unfortunately, nobody saw Head
so we couldn't use that line."
The few lobby posters that actually featured The Monkees on them also
prominently displayed the warnings "A movie for a turned-on audience"
and "Not suitable for children". ("We didn't shoot the movie on acid,"
says Rafelson. "But Jack did structure the movie in his mind on an
The kids who did see it couldn't help but be bewildered. The non-
linear film was channel-surfing on hallucinogenics. Micky Dolenz jumps
from a bridge, is rescued by mermaids, and re-emerges in The Monkees'
pad. The group pop in and out of various movies - Vietnam images, and
a David Lean-like desert adventure concludes with Micky blowing up a
Coke machine. Dolenz, arrows in his chest, decides he's done with
Westerns, rips down the cowboy backdrop and enters a boxing drama.
Things continue in this insane manner, jumping from evil factories to
spiritual saunas. Certain characters keep showing up, including
legendary Kubrick "nutcase" Timothy Carey, and a giant Victor Mature
as The Big Victor (RCA Victor was the group's parent label). Both
Dolenz and Rafelson say there was talk of sending the reels out to
theatres in no particular order. In other words, one has to see Head
to make any sense of it.
"A lot of Monkees fans didn't get it at all," says Dolenz. "I remember
I was at a car wash in the Valley and this teenage girl came up to me
and said, 'I saw Head.' I was, like, That's nice. And she said, 'How
could you support the war like that?' She'd read that whole war
sequence - a totally anti-war statement - as being pro-Vietnam. I was
stunned. But that showed that our fans didn't get it, [that] the movie
was so far removed from the sensibilities of a Monkees episode. People
didn't understand it. I'm not sure I do to this day!
"I'm not even sure Jack and Bob knew what the film was about. It was
certainly a deconstruction of The Monkees and the whole Hollywood
myth. And about us as individuals getting stuck in this black box,
which was a metaphor for The Monkees. We used to talk about being in a
black box all the time. When we were on tour, especially - but even
being on the TV set. We couldn't leave a room or hotel. We were
shuffled around from limo to hotel room to limo to the back entrance
of a concert arena into a dressing room. It was even a little black
box on-stage because we used to jump out of these fake Vox amps. So
for more than two years, we lived - literally - in a little black box.
But aside from that, the movie was just symptomatic of the times."
Reviews were mostly scathing, including a particularly vicious screed
by Pauline Kael in the New Yorker that put the final nails in the
avant-garde coffin. Opening two months after the cancellation of the
TV series, Head grossed just $16,111 in box office receipts, nowhere
near the $790,000 Columbia Pictures had invested. Head would not
commercially debut in London until March 1977.
The soundtrack album, assembled by Nicholson using dialogue and music
from the film, was the first Monkees album to miss Billboard's Top 10,
peaking at 45. A guilty pleasure among hipsters at the time, featuring
players like Neil Young, Ry Cooder, Earl Palmer and Buffalo
Springfield drummer Dewey Martin, the album showcased two of Tork's
best tracks ('Can You Dig It' and 'Do I Have To Do This All Over
Again'), a Nesmith gem ('Circle Sky'), a Nilsson cover ('Daddy's
Song'), and the Goffin-King psychedelic treasure, 'Porpoise Song',
which later became a cult classic. But, issued as a single in October
'68, it peaked at Number 62. The end was near.
"The Monkees were going off the air about the time Head was being
wrapped up," recalls Tork. "So we didn't do anything in the public eye
for months - we toured Japan and that was it - and the public forgot
about us. The Monkees were a TV-driven group. TV is a medium for short
attention spans, and if you don't keep them fed, they're gone. By the
time Head came out, nobody was interested in The Monkees, especially
the avant-garde. And the kids weren't interested in a psychedelic
movie. So, The Monkees tanked in a massive way. I left right after, I
had things I wanted to do. They went on without me for a while -
touring Mexico City and so on. But they would've had a hard road to
regenerate The Monkees."
BUT LIKE MANY POP ARTEFACTS, THERE'S BEEN MUCH critical revisionism
over the past three decades. Following a 1973 revival screening, LA
Times chief film critic Charles Champlin wrote: "You wonder how
critics and early audiences could have missed the film's fierce energy
and...tart, iconoclastic point of view." It was that point of view,
with The Monkees both acknowledging and attacking their manufactured
image, that endeared Head to the irony-inclined punk and post-punk
generations. When it was first released on video in 1987, John Kordosh
summed up a growing Zeitgeist when he wrote in Creem: "Head reveals
some bitter truths about rock stardom. It's a dark movie and -
ultimately - a remarkably accurate assessment (and forecast) of what
this rock business was becoming...Head is anti-rock and anti-fame
[and] so self-mocking that it borders on tragedy."
Interestingly, in a rare comment about the film - to Rex Reed of the
New York Times in 1970 - Nicholson used one of those same labels.
"Nobody ever saw that, man," he said of Head, "but I saw it 158
million times. I loved it. Filmatically, it's the best rock'n'roll
movie ever made. It's anti-rock."
Today, there are literally dozens of websites that explore the hidden
meanings of Head and extol its retrospective virtues as one of the
great '60s rock films. It's been heralded as a direct influence on
everything from MTV to Monty Python's Flying Circus and episodic,
Dadaist comedy classics like Kentucky Fried Movie, Airplane! and
"To this day, I get letters from all kinds of people asking if they
can see a print of Head," says Rafelson. "I've just been asked to re-
release it on DVD, with a director's commentary. Which I doubt I'll do
because I've never done it. I've never seen any movie I've made. But
through the years this has turned into the anthem movie of
rock'n'roll. That's shocking because The Monkees were hardly
rock'n'roll anthem-bearers. But rock bands identify with it. Mick
Jagger called, like, 20 years ago and said, 'I remember you asking if
you could see Cocksucker Blues when no one else had seen it. And I
sent you a print. So now let me see Head.' One critic wrote that if
you could take one film from the '60s, put it in a time capsule and
bring it up 100 years from now, Head is the movie."
In fact, The Monkees going all experimental with Head shouldn't have
come as a surprise to those who watched the second and final season of
the TV show. It has often been documented how they were a manufactured
group that evolved into a real rock'n'roll band. How Nesmith put his
fist through a hotel wall, threatening then-music supervisor Don
Kirshner with: "That could have been your face." How that led to The
Monkees taking artistic control of their third - and arguably best -
album, Headquarters, a respectable effort in any rock era. And how the
group was pretty good live for a band who supposedly "couldn't play
their instruments" - take it from someone who saw them (Detroit's
Olympia Stadium, January 14, 1967). Head's stunning 'Circle Sky'
concert scene - filmed in Salt Lake City on the final day of shooting,
May 21,1968 - is definitive proof.
But after playing rock stars on the road and introducing American
concert audiences to Jimi Hendrix, The Monkees were becoming
increasingly disinterested in the TV show (even if hipsters like
Timothy Leary were singing its praises). "I was getting a little bored
with doing the same show every week - even after only two years," says
Dolenz. "We'd met The Beatles. We'd been around the world. To come
back to doing a half-hour TV show seemed like a bit of a letdown. In
retrospect, I think we probably should have kept doing the TV show.
But the idea came along to do this movie."
The second season found the foursome taking more chances. Dolenz and
Tork directed episodes. The final show, broadcast May 25,1968, ended
with a little-known folk singer named Tim Buckley performing 'Song To
The Siren'. The second-to-last episode - Monkees Blow Their Minds -
featured special guest Frank Zappa reversing personas with Nesmith in
an opening vignette that concluded with Nesmith-as-Zappa sledge-
hammering a car to the strains of Zappa's 'Mother People'. Thus,
Zappa's appearance in Head shouldn't have come as that big of a
"Zappa was a fan," say Dolenz. "Mike met him, and he saw what we were
doing, and wanted to be part of it." Zappa subsequently told an
interviewer that he thought The Monkees were better than 90 per cent
of the music coming from San Francisco. "He asked me to drum for The
Mothers Of Invention after The Monkees were finished," continues
Dolenz. "Sometimes I wish I had, but I couldn't because I was still
"With the possible exception of Victor Mature," Rafelson says of the
unique guest stars in the film, "everyone else was sort of a loser, a
bad guy, someone who'd been condemned. Whether it was The Mothers Of
Invention or Sonny Liston, the bad, bad heavyweight who'd been knocked
out by Cassius Clay. Annette Funicello, who was considered a bit of a
joke because she was a Mickey Mouse Club girl. T.C. Jones, the first
famous female impersonator. Or Carol Doda, the woman with the large
tits who gets knocked out in the ring - she was the first stripper of
that age, the first woman to dance topless and create a sensation. All
these people represented what The Monkees were in some way, shape, or
form: people had condemned them and yet they were heroes in other
Most of the movie's strange special guest stars are now dead or
indisposed. June Fairchild, the starlet who's seen early in the film
soul-kissing each Monkee - and later threatens to jump from a building
(a girlfriend of Three Dog Night's Danny Hutton, she's credited with
naming that band) - is now homeless, living on skid row in downtown
LA. Then there's the cliche that if you remember the '60s, you really
didn't experience them. The memories of the various principals who
made Head are often conflicting and selective at best. All parties
agree that a weekend trip to an Ojai, California resort in late '67
was the genesis, though only Davy Jones - who likes to ramble on
stream-of-consciousness these days, jumping from meeting Debbie
Reynolds in an airport, to details of his race-horses, to how almost
everyone in showbiz is a "shithead" - still adds that the retreat
included "smoking, like, a ton of pot".
Dolenz: "There was just the four of us plus Bob, Bert, and Jack. We
just talked for two days. It seemed to be more about what we didn't
want to make. A basic rambling about everything. Jack was trying to
get a sense of who we were. Now that I see the movie, it's clear they
were looking to make a deconstruction of The Monkees [and] a
deconstruction of Hollywood as well."
"To a degree I was parodying Hollywood," says Rafelson. "But I was
also saying, I'll probably never get the chance to make a movie again,
so I'm going to make every movie this time out. Ojai was sort of a
group therapy session. But Jack was dumbfounded to think The Monkees
would say things like, 'We're better actors than Marlon Brando.' Jack
said, 'Jesus, who are these guys? They're out of their minds.' I said,
Just be patient, Jack. They all have their virtues, they'll do
everything quite well."
Jones: "The Head experience has always baffled me. I never understood
it. I didn't understand why we didn't get a writing credit. I was paid
a thousand dollars for it And we co-wrote it."
Dolenz: "I think it was Mike who said, 'What's going to happen when we
make this movie? What are the credits going to be?' Jack or Bob or
somebody said, 'Jack Nicholson is going to write this movie.' Mike
said, 'We should get some credit because we've been instrumental in
constructing this movie.' There was a huge battle about this. Mike
Nesmith took the tapes [of the weekend's conversations] from the
portable recorder and put them in the trunk of his car and wouldn't
give them up! He did eventually surrender the tapes. And, indeed, we
didn't write the screenplay. Jack did. I've often felt we should've
received some sort of credit because all of us did have a lot to do
with the content and spirit of that film. At the very least, it was
about us. Not just The Monkees [but] us as individuals and people."
Rafelson: "They wanted everything. They were kids. They didn't know
anything about movies. Yeah, they wanted writing credit - but, my
goodness, Mr Nicholson was dumbfounded as to why. Now, their
recollection is probably different because they think they invented
themselves. From a certain point of view, as I was inspired to make a
movie about The Monkees, they may have thought they deserved it. But
there was little I learned in Ojai that I didn't already know."
Tork: "Nowadays I'm of the opinion that the people who did the hard
work deserved the credit. Essentially, ideas are worth nothing. We had
ideas and we contributed them. But we didn't write. So we don't
deserve writing credit. That's all there is to it."
The first day of shooting was scheduled for February 11, 1968 - but
there was another snag before Rafelson could begin filming.
"Mike was the shop steward of The Monkees during that whole period,"
explains Dolenz. "He introduced us to an agent called Jerry Perenchio,
now one of the most successful men in the business. He said, 'You guys
are really getting ripped off.' So he encouraged us to strike. Peter,
unfortunately, didn't agree. He was the scab, so to speak. That took
the wind out of the sails of our opportunity."
Tork: "I felt it was another power play by Mike. It was strange,
because I was raised a labour progressive. If ever there was a guy who
understood the dynamics of labour organising, it was me. What Mike
meant was, 'Let me be the boss.' The other three did stay out for the
first day of shooting, and, basically Bert allowed a little trade-off
and gave them a face-saving concession. But I got paid nothing for
Head. I was given a piece of the action and it died. I'm not bitter.
So Davy got $1,000 more than I did!"
Rafelson: "I got into a fist-fight with Perenchio over this. Threw him
down a flight of stairs, and said, You win. Take The Monkees! They're
not going to be in the movie. We'll cancel it. I'd been waiting all my
life to make a movie, but I said, I will not let my partner negotiate
under a gun. This guy was trying to hold up the movie."
All this animosity guaranteed that the paranoia depicted in the film
was inherent on the set, though Toni Basil - who choreographed Head's
musical numbers and would later appear in Easy Rider and Five Easy
Pieces - remembers the environment as anything but tense. "It was a
wonderful experience, just the opposite of paranoia," she recalls.
"Bob gave everyone a lot of creative control."
Nevertheless, Tork has frequently said Rafelson was "uncharitable"
during filming. Nicholson biographer Patrick McGilligan reported that
the director would do derisive things like play Buffalo Springfield on
set and taunt the group with: "That's real rock'n'roll, man!"
"Well, he never did that to me," says Tork. "But my personal belief is
that Bob is an evil-minded man. He likes to bring people down. Bob was
often unsupportive as a human being and distinctly negative - and I
was on the short end of that. There's one example [in the film] -
where Ray Nitschke, the football player, keeps hitting me. He was a
Hall of Famer for the Green Bay Packers. He's doing his best to hit me
but not to give it all he's got because if he does, I'm a squashed
bug. So this guy's one of the toughest men in football, he's coming at
me and I'm scared [but] figure it's good to be scared because that's
what an actor should do. But Bob goes: 'Ha, ha! Look at Peter! He's
scared! Ha, ha!' I was just about to kick him in the balls. It was
like, For fuck's sake, Rafelson! You're making fun of me 'cos I'm
scared? How do you think that's going to affect the quality of your
movie, pal? I was so angry! That's the style in which he damaged what
could have been a fulfilling quality experience."
"In a way, it was my farewell to The Monkees," says Rafelson. "I mean,
the movie begins and ends with them committing a kind of symbolic
suicide. I was trying to expose the myth [of] the TV show. The movie
portrays them with not so much sweetness and brightness. It's a much
heavier and far-out thinking group. I wouldn't call it uncharitable. I
thought it was expanding my sense of who they were. There's a boxing
scene in which Micky says, 'Take this, you dummy' Suddenly the music
changes and Peter appears in the corner, Christ-like, and says,
'Micky, I'm the dummy. I'm always the dummy.' The point was that he
was always asked to be the dummy, so here he's acknowledging it. But
he's also the one who's given the longest speech in the movie about
spiritual evolution, which he's learned from the guru in the steam
room. I was trying to give him a chance to be himself, but in a
symbolic way. He is that way today, by the way. In other words, The
Monkees became what they really were."
"I was as anxious to get away from that whole squeaky-clean, bubblegum
image as anybody else," says Dolenz. "I didn't want to quit, but I'm
still proud of Head because we got to do something that wasn't so
controlled and censored. There were political statements. Even the
sexual references were great. I was 23 or 24 and still talking and
relating to girls - Monkees fans - who were 12 or 14! Which was pretty
weird! So there was that, if nothing else."
"I've seen it dozens of times," says Tork. "I have some mixed feelings
about it. There are some good bits in it, but, as an overall movie, I
don't know how good I think it is."
Jones: "I only began to understand it in the last few years. I've
since recommended it to many people - not for my performance, because
I was still playing 'Davy'. But I have much more admiration for it now
that I'm a more aware of what it takes to make a film. Those guys did
great and wrote great material. I wrote a lot of it, they wrote a lot,
and we all shared the success. I was glad to be part of it."
"Jack loves Head," says Rafelson. "He still quotes lines from the film
to me on a daily basis. 'Howzabout some more steam?' Or 'Everybody's
where they want to be.'
"What I personally find rewarding about Head is that people still care
about it. That the movie has somehow recovered from the bad reception
it originally received and is now regarded as something unique,
special, even something that led the way. I've seen myself referred to
as 'the godfather of MTV'. It's always nice to have a revisionist
opinion. I'm sure there'll be another one sooner or later where it'll
be condemned, if I live long enough.
"I've never seen any of my movies. The only one of them that I could
see on TV if it came on - and I could watch five minutes of it - would
be Head. Because who can remember how and what the fuck comes next in