Thursday, December 13, 2007

HEAD (1968)

When I was done watching this, the Monkees' only feature film, I had no idea how I was going to approach this review. But then it hit me: it's not really a movie, but a long, long episode of the their TV show, or maybe a TV special consisting of unrelated songs and sketches, but instead of being something like "The Monkees' Christmas Special," it's "The Monkees Kiss Their Career Goodbye Special: With Guest Stars and Acid Flashbacks!" It's been quite a while since I've seen a Monkees show, but I remember it as aspiring to (but not reaching) a kind of Marx Brothers quality: vaguely surreal slapstick bits pasted together with paper-thin excuses for narratives. The movie is more of the same, but without any attempt at a narrative thread. (If I were feeling generous, I might say the film also prefigures the comedy of Mel Brooks and Monty Python, but I think I'd have to be higher than the filmmakers to be that generous.) Here are my notes, more or less chronologically, I think:

The film begins with the promise of a storyline as we see Mickey Dolenz, being chased by a small crowd of people including the other Monkees, leaping off of a bridge in the middle of some kind of dedication ceremony. Solarized mermaids swim with him to the tune "The Porpoise Song." Suddenly, the Monkees are about to perform onstage; there's a self-deprecating song/chant that foregrounds the band's manufactured origin and the fragmented nature of the very film we're seeing. Concert footage is mixed with war footage, including the famous clip of the brutal execution, by a pistol to the head, of a Vietnamese man. There's a clip from the 30's horror classic THE BLACK CAT of Bela Lugosi saying, "Supernatural, perhaps; baloney, perhaps not!" Mickey is suddenly in a desert, trying to get a Coke out of an empty Coke machine while a Coke jingle plays, and eventually blasting it to pieces with a tank (a Lawrence of Arabia/Dr. Strangelove reference?). In a war setting, Green Bay Packer Ray Nitschke keeps trying to tackle Peter Tork. There follows a scene out of a Western which winds up breaking the fourth wall, a la BLAZING SADDLES, with the cast spilling out into a studio cafeteria (with a cashier who talks like Bette Davis). Davy Jones boxes with Sonny Liston and chats with Annette Funicello about wanting to give up boxing for the violin (a GOLDEN BOY reference?). The Monkees wind up trapped in a huge black box and then realize they are bits of dandruff in the hair of Victor Mature. Peter whistles "Strawberry Fields Forever" while popping a zit. Davy performs Harry Nilsson's "Daddy's Song" (quite badly and purposely, I think) as a soft-shoe. Frank Zappa tells him the song was "pretty white"; Davy's reply: "So am I." Mike Nesmith has a surprise birthday party thrown for him, which upsets him. Peter, repeating what he's been taught by a guru, lectures the others about the "reality of now" and the way we are constantly bombarded with "vividly imagined experiences." Victor Mature returns, as does the desert, and they all wind up back at the beginning of the film, running from a crowd and jumping off a bridge into the ocean. The end.

Individual bits are amusing, and the psychedelica is fun, but the constant riffing on the theme of the Monkees as both lamely artificial and sadly put-upon by their celebrity gets old. Some critics have said that this film was intended to deal a death blow to the Monkee image, and it did, at least until the nostalgia boom of the late 80's brought them back together. On the surface, the film seems like a satire, but too often, it's just referencing pop culture (admittedly a few years before everyone else started doing it as mainstream entertainment) rather than satirizing. Going through the paces of referencing a sequence from DUCK SOUP is not the same as actually commenting on the folly of war. The worst thing of all is that the music isn't very good. I like Monkees music but nothing in the movie is catchy or fun or interesting, with the possible exception of "The Porpoise Song." And Davy Jones sounds bad. I can't say I'm sorry to have seen it (I tried watching a pan-and-scan version of the film years ago on TV and didn't make it past the mermaid scene), but I don't think I'll be returning to it anytime soon. Jack Nicholson co-wrote this and has a cameo. [TCM]

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