A rewatch benumbed to this flash and flare reveals the stark morbidity of Head. Throughout the movie the Monkees are assaulted, hunted, and caged. Words fail, fists fail. The film ends on the bridge where it began, with a group suicide this time. In lieu of swimming with the trippy fishes as Micky had done, the camera pans back to reveal the Monkees pounding against a fish tank, further back to reveal Victor Mature seated in a director’s chair beside them, and further back to reveal both Monkees and Mature on a flatbed truck as it pulls away. While shooting the TV series, the band kept to a black-box “lounge” during breaks so that studio execs wouldn’t have to see freaks on the back lot.
* * *
In 1965, convinced that Hollywood did not lack talent but the talent to recognize talent, Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson formed a production company. Over half of America’s population was under 25. With so many turned on and tuned in, the industry still churned out Doris Day and Rock Hudson rom-coms in the histrionic shadow of the Vietnam War, the arbitrary tyranny of the Hays Code, and the reign of producers who hadn’t sported a head of hair to let down since Douglas Fairbanks. Bert was a languid studio brat barred in an act of reverse nepotism from rising up the ranks of Columbia, his father’s company. Bob was a shrewd drifter who met Bert as a television producer at Screen Gems. Bob wanted to direct, and Bert to produce. They recognized that the way to evade the geriatracy of Hollywood studios, which were mere side firms for insurance, zinc mining, or funeral home conglomerates, was to produce their own films and give directors the final cut. They called themselves Raybert Productions.
Beatlemania had swept the country with the Beatles’ first American tour the previous year. Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965) documented the Fab Four’s screeching, groping reception in a swinging, flash-cut mod style with a profit to match. In the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris deemed A Hard Day’s Night “the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.”1 Seeking to meld the pop frenzy with Lester’s feverish style, Bob and Bert conceived a comic TV series about an American Beatles rip-off band. The possible success of a self-lampooning improvisational rock quartet was legitimized by way of Liverpool by way of Hamburg. Raybert sold their idea to Screen Gems. In September 1965, they advertised an open call in the Hollywood trades for “4 insane boys, 17-21.”2 They wanted personalities large enough to charm the lunch money off of every 14-year-old in the nation too wet behind the ears for Pet Sounds, musical prowess be damned. 437 shaggy hopefuls swarmed the Columbia lot. The most frequent comment on the evaluation form beside the names of teenyboppers who didn’t make the cut is “Too old.”3
Raybert cast two actors and two musicians: Davy Jones, a child Broadway actor with a Manchester twang and the look and sound of Errol Flynn on nitrous; Micky Dolenz, a native Angeleno who played the ten-year-old lead of a mid-’50s TV serial called Circus Boy; Mike Nesmith, a wry, beanied, and relatively silent Texan of the sort Will Rogers would play; and Peter Tork, a reedy, spacey Greenwich Village flunk who played piano for Stephen Stills under the name the Buffalo Fish. After Raybert rejected Stills’s own offer to play a Monkee in exchange for a new set of teeth and hair (there were insufficient funds), he volunteered his doppelgänger Tork, assuring them that Peter had more hair and some talent. The screen tests are infamous. In one, Bob, off-frame: “Do you make a folk sound or a rock sound?” Davy: “I make a terrible sound.” In another, Bob asks Mike to play the “strong and silent type.” Mike turns his head away and whips it back with a smile. Bob demands he play a girl. Mike does the same thing. Bob protests that they’re the same thing. Mike replies that that’s Rafelson’s hangup, man, not his.
Raybert shot the lowest-rated pilot NBC ever screened. After learning that the focus group couldn’t tell one Monkee from another, Bob demanded 24 hours to recut the pilot. He knew the Monkees from their screen tests; determined that viewers should too, he cut the footage in. The next day it was NBC’s highest-rated show. It taught Schneider the fragility of Hollywood success. The celluloid went where luck, testosterone, and numbers rose. While the show’s director Jim Frawley ordered freewheeling improvisation from the moment the Monkees emerged from their trailers, musical success in the era of managers like Albert Grossman, Brian Epstein, and Allen Klein required a ruthless heavy.
Bob and Bert gave Screen Gems recording chief Don Kirshner full creative control over music releases, producers, and writers. Kirshner had a stable of the best songs and studio musicians in America under contract; his cabal of writers included Carole King, Harry Nilsson, Neil Diamond, Neil Sedaka, Tommy Boyce, and Bobby Hart. Without Kirshner, the Monkees would have seen no rise and no fall. On his first day, Micky poured a Coke on his head and Peter was nearly turned away for showing up with a guitar. The “band” was to sing and no more; they couldn’t so much as riff “Johnny B. Goode” during breaks without suffering a scolding in Kirshner’s clipped Manhattan drawl. By a sort of Tin Pan Alley messianism, he was convinced that with good material alone he could shoot every album and single he thrust upon the Monkees to the top of the American charts.
To his credit, he did. In 1967, the fake band sold 35 million records, outselling the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined. Monkeemania reached a national fever pitch at a time when the only other long-haired chaps on TV were getting arrested. John Lennon deemed the Monkees the funniest comedy team since the Marx Brothers. They sold out stadiums as a cover act for their own album. Their faces blistered bobbleheads and lunchboxes, zany ads for Kool-Aid and zany ads for Yardley Black Label. It became inconvenient to go outside. Figuring that it was all downhill from their double #1-album streak, the boys fired Kirshner, determined to play every godforsaken note on their next release, Headquarters.
It hit #1 for a week (Sgt. Pepper came out the next) but undersold their other hits by millions. They became icons so soon that they’d learned to play loudly before learning to play well. They sought to resemble the groups they outsold. Eschewing the money machine both made the Monkees as a non-fictional band and killed the place they held in the late-’60s zeitgeist. The TV show was forgettable without a steady aural stream of Kirshner’s musical sausage-factory. Anyway, the cast wanted to try everyone else’s job and the crew wanted to make movies. When Season 2 wrapped for good, Bob and Bert suggested that they funnel profits toward shooting one. Raybert and the Monkees spent the next four days getting loaded and rambling into a tape recorder at a golf resort in Ojai, California. Jack Nicholson was hired to script a film from this lysergic summit meeting; he wrote most of it in Harry Dean Stanton’s basement, where he slept.
Filming began on February 15, 1968. On the first day, the boys never showed up. Characteristically undeterred, Bob shot the stand-ins. The last thing he wanted was a 90-minute Monkees episode. The point was to turn the Pre-Fab Four on its head, to have the band bust and rend its plastic shell. With an uncynical morbidity that would define Rafelson’s oeuvre, he shot the dissolution of the Monkees image in the same trippy light that had given it life. He wrote in the script that “film was not a holy parchment, and was to be ripped and shredded and run backwards and painted on.”4 Neither temporal nor spatial coherence was sacred – cuts, framing, colors, and narrative blurred and broke.
Convinced that no sober man would let him shoot another movie after this one, Bob used every genre in the book. Raybert cast a chorus of bad losers with big statures – Tim Carey (professional psychopath), Annette Funicello (Micky Mouse Club ingenue), Carol Doda (the first topless dancer in San Francisco), Sonny Liston (boxing champion long out of jail), Terri Garr (a go-go dancer in Elvis features), and Victor “the Hunk” Mature. In one brainstorm session, Bob zoned out while Jack was rambling. Bob apologized; he was imagining the darkest thing on the planet (Victor Mature’s hair). They lost no time crafting a scene in which the Monkees were literally the dandruff of Old Hollywood, prancing on Vic’s lardy scalp in all-white jumpsuits. Jack had to be restrained from setting the whole movie in Mature’s hair. Raybert decided to name the movie Head, so they could bill their next release “from the producers who gave you Head.”5
The title was used but useless; no one saw the film. The PR campaign may as well have been calculated to sink it. The ad is unbelievable: a monochromatic low-res bust shot of John Brockman (movie promoter, export from Andy Warhol’s Factory, and Marshall McLuhan’s associate professor) looking like a neurasthenic Austin Powers. There is no mention of the Monkees, though perhaps this was to their benefit. There is no mention of any film at all, just HEAD in small white bold letters. Columbia, which agreed to distribute the film as a commercial vehicle, forced Raybert to add release information after viewers assumed that their sets were broken every time the TV ads aired. Raybert ran the words in reverse. The film premiered on a Wednesday in November 1968 at the Cinema Studio, an arcane West Side theater that only played Spanish movies. Worried that no one would show, Jack and Bob plastered every toilet stall and PO box in New York with stickers – again, no explanation, just a contemplative and grainy Brockman. Fifteen devotees came on opening night, most related to the crew. The film cost $750,000; it made $16,000.
Dolenz claimed that, because Head was rated R, the Monkees’ demographic couldn’t even get into the theater. In fact, it was rated G, and one of the first films to receive an MPAA rating at all. Nevertheless, those who came were perturbed to see a film where Micky kills himself in the first two minutes. After he runs through a municipal ribbon-cutting ceremony and jumps off a suspension bridge while the other Monkees peer over the edge with moderate concern, an obvious dummy clad in Micky’s bootcut cords and Adidas low-tops crashes into the merciless spray of Long Beach to the spacey majesty of Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Porpoise Song” and as many solarized replay shots as possible. Mermaids (sea-Monkee?) glide past. The rest hits like a psychotropic custard in the face. The Monkees chant their introduction across 20 TV screens: “Hey, hey, we are The Monkees/You know we love to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies.”
The screens then cut to General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan taking out Viet Cong prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém with a bullet to the temple on a Saigon road. The screams of women off-screen are revealed to belong to fans at a Monkees concert. As they swarm the stage and rend clothes, limbs, and heads, the boys are revealed to be plastic dolls. This war footage runs throughout the film, in a time so fraught that only one other film dared show it; this was Three Resurrected Drunkards (Nagisha Oshia, 1968), which was at once a critique of Japanese-Korean complicity in Vietnam and a surreal Head spoof starring the Kyoto pop group the Folk Crusaders.
Through the rest of Head, the Monkees stagger through a postmodern Old Hollywood panorama: a war trench scene starring Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke and the golden football helmet that Nicholson later sported in Easy Rider (1969); cacti at the O.K. Corral; bribes at a boxing match; tenement-noir in Manhattan; the dunes of T. E. Lawrence; even a stroboscopic Fred Astaire bit with Davy and Toni Basil, the film’s choreographer (later cast in Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces), strutting to the Nilsson tune “Daddy’s Song.” Rafelson shot a white stage with black-clad dancers, then a black stage with white-clad dancers, and flash-cut each scene into the other every three frames.
A rewatch benumbed to this flash and flare reveals the stark morbidity of Head. Throughout the movie the Monkees are assaulted, hunted, and caged. Words fail, fists fail. The film ends on the bridge where it began, with a group suicide this time. In lieu of swimming with the trippy fishes as Micky had done, the camera pans back to reveal the Monkees pounding against a fish tank, further back to reveal Victor Mature seated in a director’s chair beside them, and further back to reveal both Monkees and Mature on a flatbed truck as it pulls away. While shooting the TV series, the band kept to a black-box “lounge” during breaks so that studio execs wouldn’t have to see freaks on the back lot. In his review for Criterion, Chuck Stephens called Head “arguably the most authentically psychedelic film made in 1960s Hollywood.”6
It is a pathological violation of the fourth wall. In a commissary scene, Peter is served by a female impersonator named “Mr. and Mrs. Ace” in the script. Offended by something, Peter slugs her (to the detriment of her wig). Bells ring to cut, the frame pans back, and the crew swarms on set with the camera still rolling. Bert and Jack squabble with Dennis Hopper, still in Easy Rider wardrobe. Peter makes his case – “It’s not right, Bob, it’s for the image, think about it, the kids aren’t going to dig it, man, me hitting a girl.” There were certainly precedents in the TV series. One episode of The Monkees sees the group brainstorming ideas that will pay the rent. Micky breaks off and the camera follows him across the set to a backstage writers’ room. In another scene, director Jim Frawley walks in-frame after a jump scare and orders the Monkees to repeat it for a more convincing take.
Regardless, after nine months of this – nine months of nothing but melting, slashing, and strobing cinematic form – Rafelson was determined never to do anything like it again for as long as he held a camera. In each successive picture he made, he counted and pared cuts so that scenes unfolded over long, sustained takes. By the time that Head wrapped, Bob, Bert, and Jack had taken to playing other bands’ records during breaks. They had their mind on other things; namely, financing Easy Rider (then called The Loners). They opened Head quietly, hoping that the film would balloon from word-of-mouth. It’s difficult to spread the word about a film that has no point.
Regardless, the plan was not far-fetched: with unsquandered Monkees dough, Raybert backed Easy Rider and convinced a disdainful Columbia to distribute it. It won at Cannes and returned its $400,000 investment with a house gross of $40,000 in its first week at an East Side theatre and a worldwide gross of $60 million. Peter Fonda, hot from the success of Roger Corman’s countercultural biker flick The Wild Angels (1966), starred alongside Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper. Hopper, who couldn’t stand bikes, refrained from slaughtering his colleagues for long enough to direct the film. Like its predecessor Bonnie and Clyde (1967), its anti-authoritarianism was sodden with gloomy anomie. No rebel survives.
In the wake of Easy Rider’s success, young Hollywood demanded independent production and directorial control. The studios had shouldered long slow death throes since the Supreme Court anti-trust judgments of the late ’40s. These divorced production companies from theater chains, freed talent from the contract system, and catapulted the TV industry. Between financial suicides like Cleopatra (1963), family-friendly opiates like The Sound of Music (1965), and milquetoast epics like The Bible (1966), execs no longer understood what worked. The inexperience of long-haired newcomers was no longer a barrier but a boon.
Raybert rebranded as BBS Productions in 1969 with the addition of Steve Blauner, a grisly Screen Gems head and Schneider’s childhood friend. BBS went 50-50 with Columbia on a deal that gave them final cut on six films, so long as each was under $1 million. The idea was to wrest creative control from producers to directors (and writers, and crew). Their work over the next few years – Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson, 1970), Drive, He Said (Nicholson, 1970), A Safe Place (Henry Jaglom, 1971), The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971), and The King of Marvin Gardens (Rafelson, 1972) – redefined the relationship between studio control and independent cinema. Nevertheless, Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show alone proved lucrative, and the men – particularly Schneider – turned their time and money toward black power and anti-war groups. The former efforts produced a bizarrely successful plot to smuggle Huey Newton (fresh from jail on a $5,000 bond, having jumped bail after shooting a 17-year-old prostitute) to Cuba through the Panama Canal on a trimaran from Mexico. The latter efforts produced Hearts and Minds (1974), one of the first critical Vietnam documentaries released before the war’s end. Columbia withheld its funding until BBS sued.
Actors, writers, and directors inspired by BBS and freed from studio interference made more realistic, morally ambiguous, socially concerned, radically edited, and formally self-conscious masterworks than Hollywood had seen before. The first generation of film school graduates made Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969), M*A*S*H* (Robert Altman, 1970), The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), The Last Detail (Hal Ashby, 1973), The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973), Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), Shampoo (Ashby, 1975), Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976), Carrie (Brian de Palma, 1976), Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978), and Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979). Critics christened it the “New Hollywood.”
After that, the story is familiar and vague: by the late ’70s, the road forked. The date is usually set at 1977, when Lucas’s Star Wars passed Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) as the top-grossing film of all time. The ingenious technical effects, timed summer release, ruthless marketing and merchandise campaign, and wide distribution model of Spielberg’s film was a blockbuster blueprint reiterated by Lucas to masterful and mammon-faced effect. When serial genre exploitations that Corman might have shot on a $300,000 shoestring pulled hundreds of millions against budgets of $30 million, creative control became too costly to risk on any director. The moon-faced mavericks of New Hollywood died of liver failure or made cinematic schlock, and so it goes.
Unlike many of the films, however, the facts are not black-and-white. These were men of the generation they are thought to have sunk. Spielberg got the seven-year contract with Universal that made his career at the gawky age of 19 on the merit of a verité short about hitchhiking lovers called Amblin’ (1968), shot with a $10,000 loan from Dustin Hoffman. Lucas’s debut was THX 1138 (1971), a druggy Orwellian dystopian flick based on a sci-fi short he made at USC. Lucas has admitted that were it not for the success of American Graffiti, which ensured him the creative control required for Star Wars, he would still be an experimental filmmaker. This space-opera masterpiece of worldbuilding, special effects, campy chemistry owes itself to New Hollywood.
On the other hand, Lucas’s success condemned him to franchisehood and Spielberg’s to conservative nostalgia. They made films about institutional conspiracies that Tom, Dick, or Harry could solve (even Luke Skywalker was a farmer) at a time when the silent majority craved institutional conspiracies that Tom, Dick, or Harry could solve. Far from the bum ennui of Head, Manichean blockbusters like Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Superman (1978), and the Indiana Jones saga were driven by a moral vacuum in the absence of authority. They were tours-de-force of broad-stroke narrative, stirring imagery, staggering special effects, phenomenal pacing, and haunting scores, achieving that rare meld of spectacle and suspended disbelief. They were black-hat, white-hat yarns somewhere between the paranoia of Watergate and the populism of Carter. Lucas insisted that the Emperor was Nixon. Nor, on the other hand, did artiness preclude regression: one may just as easily read, say, The Godfather’s reverence of ethnic and generational unity as a reactionary prelude to Reaganite family values.
Bert and Bob fared badly. Schneider’s career ended abruptly after its high point, when Hearts and Minds won an Oscar in 1975. Having sued Fox for creative control breaches after being canned nine days into shooting a prison movie called Brubaker (1980) and subsequently bashing the producer’s head with an ashtray, Rafelson was blackballed in Hollywood.7 He wound up finishing a French porno just to have some money. Nicholson, determined to save Rafelson’s career, approached him about directing a remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); years later, on a visit to a Russian orthodox monastery, a monk told Bob that this version drove him to the monastery. Rafelson spent two decades making steamy neo-noir thrillers – The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981), Black Widow (1987), Blood and Wine (1992), Poodle Springs (1998), No Good Deed (2002). As blockbusters swelled budgets, careening overhead costs barred the creative risks that had fueled talent-run companies like United Artists, First Artists, The Directors Company, American Zoetrope, and BBS. Megaproducers stopped asking “Is it a good movie?” and started asking “How will it test?”
Rafelson, Schneider, and their contemporaries made modestly successful work (with colossal exceptions) that spoke to a very small and very shaggy part of the population. When the distribution of a film suddenly had hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, the surest course was a sequel mentality that left no room for auteurs. Those who survived to see the ’80s made decadent dramas, many in the style of dramatic romances or big-budget ’60s musicals: Beatty’s Reds (1981), Schrader’s Cat People (1982), Altman’s schizophrenic Popeye (1980), Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982) and The Cotton Club (1984), Nicholson’s infamous Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes (1990). Only Beatty’s pinko epic was critically and commercially successful; it won him an Oscar and grossed $40 million.
If the situation is different now, it is worse: risk-averse studios are in sure thrall to ever-shorter production and release windows, monopolization of indie distribution territories, and declines in theatre attendance wrought in no small part by streaming services. Granted that Head was a sure box-office failure, the mind still reels imagining studio-scale distribution for a deconstructionist film with no marketing hook and no plot, not to mention an overage contract in which those who made the film aren’t last to see the profits. If independent film now has more widespread exposure, it is largely made possible by the success of “independent film” as a marketing concept. Time was when two men rutted on a tween TV show could only break that contractual adolescence with the grander medium of film.
Ironically, as the film industry treads backward into a senile chokehold of safe bets and media conglomerates fracture content into more or less niche channels and platforms, multihyphenate freaks with relatively cheap gambles often stand a better chance of maximizing run time, avoiding liver failure, and preserving their voice in television. On the other hand, as the film and TV industries merge ever more seamlessly, the possibility of a cinema that aspires to more than a “manufactured image” falls ever more to films that reckon with this image, as Head does. Sixty years in the shadow of Rafelson and Schneider’s revelation, it seems that Hollywood does not lack talent but the talent to keep talent.
Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Gruver, Colleen. “The Monkees on VH1’s Behind the Music.” August 11, 2020. YouTube video, 43 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbk7wfUPBrU.
Hoberman, J. “One Big Real Place: BBS From Head to Hearts.” Criterion. November 8, 2010. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1671-one-big-real-place-bbs-from-head-to- hearts.
Karp, Josh. “Bob Rafelson Emerges to Reflect on His Feud-and-Brawl-Filled Career.” Esquire. April 2, 2019. https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a26454547/bob-rafelson-interview/.
Morris, Chris. “A Pair of Monkees Puzzle Over Their Own ‘Head’ Trip at 50th Anniversary Screening.” Variety. November 2, 2018. https://variety.com/2018/music/news/monkees- head-50th-anniversary-screening-1203018711/.
Rafelson, Bob, director. Head. BBS and Columbia Pictures, 1968. 1 hr., 25 min. https://www.criterion.com/films/27527-head.
Seitz, Matt Zoller. “It’s Gonna Feel All Right: The Musical and Cinematic Legacy of ‘A Hard Day’s Night.’” Roger Ebert. July 11, 2014. https://www.rogerebert.com/mzs/its-gonna-feel-all-right-the-musical-and-cinematic-legacy-of-a-hard-days-night.
Stephens, Chuck. “Head-zapoppin!” Criterion. November 23, 2010. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1665-head-zapoppin.
The Monkees Archives. “From the Monkees to Head.” YouTube video, 28 min. June 16, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luozDDTC9uA.
The Monkees Archives. “Hey, Hey We’re the Monkees Documentary.” YouTube video, 1 hr., 24 min. April 9, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6clYpKVk4g.
- Matt Zoller Seitz, “It’s Gonna Feel All Right: The Musical and Cinematic Legacy of ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’” Roger Ebert, July 11, 2014, https://www.rogerebert.com/mzs/its-gonna-feel-all-right-the-musical-and-cinematic-legacy-of-a-hard-days-night. [↩]
- The Monkees Archives, “From the Monkees to Head,” YouTube video, 28 min., June 16, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luozDDTC9uA. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- The Monkees Archives, “Hey, Hey We’re the Monkees Documentary,” YouTube video, 1 hr., 24 min., April 9, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6clYpKVk4g. [↩]
- Chris Morris, “A Pair of Monkees Puzzle Over Their Own ‘Head’ Trip at 50th Anniversary Screening,” Variety, November 2, 2018, https://variety.com/2018/music/news/monkees-head-50th-anniversary-screening-1203018711/. [↩]
- Chuck Stephens, “Head-zapoppin!,” Criterion, November 23, 2010, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1665-head-zapoppin [↩]
- Josh Karp, “Bob Rafelson Emerges to Reflect on His Feud-and-Brawl-Filled Career,” Esquire, April 2, 2019, https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/movies/a26454547/bob-rafelson-interview/. [↩]