And Now For Something Completely Different...
Let me begin with a preface. Before watching the Monkees feature Head (1968), I knew virtually nothing about the band. I knew they had a TV show, I knew they were modeled after the Beatles. Yet, my generation had MTV’s “2Ge+Her” when it came to a fictional pop band packaged for our amusement. While the Monkees were undoubtedly an influence upon them, the intricacies of that influence escaped most of us. I was drawn to Head because of the talent behind the camera: it was co-written by Jack Nicholson and marked the feature debut of Rafelson, who would direct Five Easy Pieces (1970) two years later. Yet, the Monkees are inseparable from Rafelson’s career, who used his revenues from the show, along with those of partners Bert Schneider and Steve Blauner, to form BBS Productions. BBS, the subject of the recently released “America Lost and Found: The BBS Story” box set from the Criterion Collection, provided a home to many seminal films of the New Hollywood movement, most notably Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), Five Easy Pieces, and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971). Together, BBS and their films changed the landscape of American film from 1969 to roughly the mid-70s when the pendulum shifted away from the American New Wave to the blockbuster.
Head was the first BBS Production (then Raybert Productions) to be distributed under their seven-picture deal with Columbia Pictures. Despite the success of the Monkees television show, the modestly budgeted film (produced under the BBS edict of $750,000) was a disaster at the box office and with critics. Watching Head, it’s not difficult to understand why the film imploded. Essentially, it does its hardest at alienating its main demographic: the American teenager. There is no story to speak of. The band (Peter Tork, David Jones, Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith) essentially drifts from sketch to sketch, occasionally interrupted by a musical number, by editing seemingly based on free association or Monty Python. They fight in the Vietnam War, star in a dandruff commercial, blow up a Coca-Cola machine with a tank, encounter Frank Zappa with a talking cow, fight Sonny Liston, and star in a Western movie (featuring Timothy Carey and Victor Mature) about themselves directed by Rafelson and written by Jack Nicholson.
Moreover, the film also cynically deconstructs the Monkees image at nearly every turn. The famous opening number from the television show has been revised. Played over a screen filled with television images showcasing moments from the film, the song informs us that the Monkees are “A manufactured image with no philosophies….The money’s in, we’re made of tin, we’re here to give you more!” The sequence is punctuated by the filmed execution of Vietnamese operative Nguyen Van Lem, adding an even more sinister undertone to the whole endeavor. Perhaps now it’s more than evident just how much the band and Rafelson had strayed away from the initial image. The film acknowledges this in a sequence where Tork is shown hitting a cross-dresser, only to derail the film production and proclaim to Rafelson that he’s worried about his image and that “it’s a movie for kids…they’re not gonna dig it!”
The legend is that Rafelson and Nicholson were smoking large quantities of weed while writing the screenplay (in actor Harry Dean Stanton’s closet, I believe) and the film certainly feels that way as it floats from setting to setting. Yet, it has been given an elaborate, Möbius strip-esque structure in the editing room by editor Mike Pozen, making it a thankfully brief but entertaining cultural artifact. It’s hard, given my relative ignorance of the Monkees and the film’s unorthodox “narrative,” to write much else about this one (it seems to have been quite the challenge for Chuck Stevens, who supplies the set with contextualizing essay on the film, as well). Yet, it should speak to both the credit of band and Rafelson that I still had a great time. I just wish I had perhaps had a bit of his smoky muse to guide me through the trippy images and some really stunning musical sequences (including the wretch Davy Jones song “Daddy’s Song” that features some incredible editing and choreography—-done by none other than BBS regular Toni Basil).
The AV Quality
For the most part, Head looks pretty stunning. Like most Criterion releases, the widescreen transfer has a healthy dose of grain (it was shot on film, not a Red camera, after all!) while still offering the clarity of a high-definition image. There are some slight scratches in some later sequences but, overall, it’s a pretty stunning transfer. On the audio-side of things, Criterion offers up a 5.1 DTS track for those wanting a bit more of a modern punch from the music and, for the purists, a uncompressed mono track.
The Supplemental Features
The highlight here is a commentary track featuring the band, recorded in 2010. It’s both amusing and informative to hear Tork, Jones, Dolenz, and Nesmith chat about the production and their trajectories after the film ended. My only issue with the commentary is I wish Rafelson had been involved to offer another perspective on the proceedings. Criterion attempts to fill this gap by including a thirty-minute interview with Rafelson reflecting on the progression from working in television to film. The interview does a good job of supplementing the commentary track, but I have to say I’m more than curious to see how the band may have interacted with their old partner in crime (especially given rumors of a tension on the set).
Also included on the disc, which is only available on the BBS Blu-Ray set as of now (it will also be released within a DVD version of the set later this month) is a thirty-minute doc entitled “BBS: A Time for Change.” The documentary features historian Douglas Brinkley and film critic David Thomson, who do their best at contextualizing the formation of BBS both with regard to the film industry of the mid-1960s and to American culture at large. It’s a very good doc, a bit short in my opinion, but elaborated upon a great deal by other features in the six-disc set (the reviews of the other offerings will appear in the subsequent weeks, so stay tuned!).
Finally, the disc features the Monkees’ screen tests, an interview with the band circa 1968, and a gallery of promotional material. While Monkees fans may be a little disappointed at the investment required to pick up this release (roughly $70-$85 for the set on Amazon.com), I’m pretty impressed with the package thus far and would urge any fan of 60s cinema to buy the ticket and take the ride.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.
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