The Monkees' 'Head': One of Hollywood's Most Influential and Overlooked Films

How many actors or actresses would you suppose have won three or more Academy Awards for their performances? Among actresses, you have Katharine Hepburn at 4, and Ingrid Bergman and Meryl Streep at 3.
06/20/2016 12:43 pm ET Updated Jun 21, 2017

How many actors or actresses would you suppose have won three or more Academy Awards for their performances? Among actresses, you have Katharine Hepburn at 4, and Ingrid Bergman and Meryl Streep at 3. Among the men, you have Walter Brennan, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Jack Nicholson, all with 3. Of the actors and actresses with 3 or more wins, only Nicholson, for his role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, has the distinction of winning for a role in one of the few films to win the "Big Five" Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. Nicholson is also one of only four actors/actresses with double digit nominations for acting, second only to Meryl Streep and tied at 12 with Katharine Hepburn. Needless to say, Jack Nicholson is one of the most critically acclaimed, influential actors Hollywood has ever had, especially during the 1970s and 1980s.

And it never could have happened without the Monkees.

Last week, I talked about The Monkees as a show and its unique and powerful legacy melding television and music together. I briefly mentioned Jack Nicholson then, along with producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, but I wanted to hold off discussing them until we talked about the beginning of the end of the Monkees, their single cinematic offering Head.

Now, I had never seen Head before this past week, as much of a Monkees fan as I am... and there's probably a reason why it never made an appearance in my house as a kid. Allow me to summarize the film as best I can. Or, rather, as best the Monkees can. From the movie's song "Ditty Diego (War Chant)":

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies

We hope you like our story
Although there isn't one
That is to say there's many
That way there is more fun

You told us you like action
And games of many kinds
You like to dance, we like to sing
So let's all lose our minds

We know it doesn't matter
'Cause what you came to see
Is what we'd love to give you
And give it one, two, three

But there may come three, two, one, two
Or jump from nine to five
And when you see the end in sight
The beginning may arrive

For those who look for meaning
And form as they do facts
We might tell you one thing
But we'd only take it back

Not back like in a box back
Not back like in a race
Not back so we can keep it
But back in time and space

You say we're manufactured
To that we all agree
So make you choice and we'll rejoice
In never being free

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees
We've said it all before
The money's in we're made of tin
We're here to give you more

While those lyrics rather succinctly tell you exactly what the Monkees believed this movie was about, that was not the film's theme song. That was actually the second song in the film. The theme was the fantastic, psychedelic song "Porpoise Song (Theme from Head)," which has very often been referred to as "Goodbye," the oft repeated word of the chorus. This was the Monkees attempting to say goodbye to the image music critics had labeled them with, one of not being real musicians, being cheap Beatles knockoffs that deserve no praise or consideration.

To the Monkees, the most frustrating part of this claim was that it gained fervor during their tour for their record Headquarters, for which they wrote all the songs and played all the instruments. The album is generally considered one of their best, but the "Pre-Fab Four" moniker kept sticking, even as they pumped out two more major hit albums showing their own musicianship and songwriting abilities. And this, rightly enough, frustrated them. They decided against a third season of their hit show, focusing instead on the film Head and their effort to kill the personas that had been thrust upon them by public perception.

The Beatles actually did something very similar, transitioning over time from their pop-rock and cover days in the early 1960s to a harder rock, inserting psychedelic elements, using sitars, creating a new and different, yet still familiar, sound for the band. For them, it took several years, several albums, and the efforts of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, two of the most brilliant songwriters in the past century, and their change was an organic one crafted through the group's changing sensibilities. Plus, they had the support, by and large, of the music critics. The Monkees, distinctly lacking that support, ended up speeding up the process, trying to shed their undesired image by force.

Head literally has no plot whatsoever. Or at least, not any discernible one. As the song quoted earlier states, "We hope you like our story/Although there isn't one." As the film's advertising went, this was to be "the most extraordinary adventure western comedy love story mystery drama musical documentary satire ever filmed," and it delivers something for every single one of the listed genres in a fascinatingly bizarre fashion.

The film introduced drugs (finding a blunt) and overt promiscuity (the same woman kissing all four Monkees in immediate succession), hitting their image of good clean fun. It bloodied Davy Jones' pretty-boy face in a boxing match, had Peter admitting in a religious-like vision he was always meant to be "the dummy," later using Peter to espouse complex and possibly meaningless philosophies, and saw Micky refuse to participate in yet another "dumb skit," walking through an old West backdrop and ruining it. It appropriately showed the Monkees performing a concert in all-white, cult-leader-esque clothes as the screaming horde immediately clawed them apart after they show (when it was revealed the Monkees were in actuality mannequins), commenting on the rabid fanaticism of their fans. They juxtaposed screaming fans with images of death and war and murder, their most obvious anti-war statements since their songs "Zor and Zam" and "Mommy and Daddy." And, ultimately, they continued to be trapped in the same black box, carted away to do the same routines and gags, their image inescapable.

The film was an incredible meta-commentary on themselves, a vanity project that served no purpose of self-contained story, and had the goal of eliminating their image that I'm not sure the Monkees even realized they would accomplish so devastatingly well. To a non-Monkees fan, the movie likely makes no sense. To a Monkees fan at the time, without knowledge of the behind-the-scenes turmoil, the movie likely felt insulting or uncomfortably different. Both the film and the album flopped, and the Monkees soon said goodbye as a cohesive, four-man band. And yet, I would argue Head had incredible influence on Hollywood over the next several decades.

Now, it's difficult to say whether the film directly influenced anything... But there are elements reminiscent of other movies. The awkward, disjointed, deep thought randomness and repeated themes reminded me strongly of David Lynch and Mulholland Drive (though, based on what I've been told, Lost Highway or Inland Empire could possibly be even better examples), who, as much as I dislike what I've seen, has been influential in several corners of Hollywood. The film also gives a slightly less comedic And Now for Something Completely Different vibe, one of Monty Python's cinematic efforts after Head came out (though Monty Python was fully capable of being random without needing outside influence, so this may be a stretch). There's even a scene strongly reminiscent of a moment in The Muppet Movie, out eleven years later. Further, I'd wager that this film, while not being successful itself, opened the door for other musician cinematic vanity projects, like Pink Floyd's The Wall. Or the lesser known Metallica 3D concert film Through the Never, which definitely looked to Head for inspiration.

But those are really just educated guesses. What really makes Head so influential is the people who were involved. While Frank Zappa's cameo is an interesting and perhaps unexpected appearance, the film was directed, produced, and co-written by Bob Rafelson, executive produced by Bert Schneider... and produced and co-written by Jack Nicholson.

And we're back to the beginning.

Jack Nicholson had yet to catch a big break as an actor when the film Head was released. He'd had several roles, but nothing major or leading. The film certainly did nothing to launch his career as a writer. But it did introduce him to Rafelson and Schneider. For Rafelson and Schneider, Head was their introduction into the world of cinema from the world of television. The money they made from making Head, as well as The Monkees, allowed them to start in on their own projects, including a little 2-time Academy Award-nominated film called Easy Rider (directed by Dennis Hopper, who also appeared in Head) starring one Jack Nicholson... who then got cast in the next Rafelson endeavor, 4-time Academy Award-nominated film Five Easy Pieces, and Nicholson's career took off.

But Nicholson wasn't the only influential person benefiting from Head. Bob Rafelson is largely credited with ushering in the "New Hollywood" age of cinema... an age, sadly, long since dead, but still important to cinema. Cinema had started deteriorating in quality and originality, and film studios had been the real creators of how a film was meant to turn out. The "New Hollywood" movement saw the voice being given to directors... who were not always saying conventional things. And Head truly symbolized that movement. As Rafelson himself put it, "Of course Head is an utterly and totally fragmented film. Among other reasons for making it was that I thought I would never get to make another movie, so I might as well make fifty to start out with and put them all in the same feature." That sense of making whatever film you want (one that has waned in recent years) exemplified the "New Hollywood" movement, and Head is a perfect example of the extremes to which this movement could go.

If you want to experience something that is difficult to explain, bizarrely unique, and is the active death of one of the biggest cultural phenomena of 1960s America, I strongly suggest you watch Head. Even if it's just so you can tell me what you think. But whatever your opinion of the film, the effect the Monkees had on cinema, directly or not, cannot be denied. So, next time you watch a Jack Nicholson movie, maybe hum a bar of "(Theme from) The Monkees" in appreciation.

This post originally appeared on CineNation Podcast on Medium.

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