Dreaded Purple Master

Head (1968)

Frank Zappa: That music was pretty white.
Davy Jones: So am I, what can I tell you?

I was a big Monkees fan back when they were new. Among the many things I lost in the fire were several vinyl Monkees albums. I watched the TV show regularly: I recall an episode where they “walked off the set” in the middle of setting up the plot premise. (As I recall, Mike sort of “came to his senses” in the middle of a line, and observed, “You know, this is stupid. Let’s go.”) They spent the rest of the show in a “roaming around the city” montage that we would today call a long-form music video.

I knew it wasn’t a real walkout: I knew that television didn’t work that way. But I still thought it was an interesting twist.

Young as I was, I could tell that as the Monkees issued new albums, their “sound” became less polished, rougher, still interesting in its own way but less crowd-pleasing. I learned later that it was because the boys were finally playing their own instruments and selecting (and in some cases writing) their own songs. They were rebelling against their packaged origins – and in so doing losing the audience that loved them the way they were, as second-string, “safe” Beatles.

(It may seem incredible at this late date to compare the Monkees and the Beatles. I will only mention that when Sgt Pepper hit #1 on the charts, the album it replaced was the Monkees’ Headquarters.)

But I never saw their first and only feature film, Head. I’d bought their single from the soundtrack, “Porpoise Song” (a Carole King sound-alike of George Harrison’s “Blue Jay Way” – or perhaps, since “Porpoise Song” came first, it’s the other way around), but it was so utterly unlike anything the Monkees had done that it didn’t tempt me to buy the soundtrack album, or to see the film.

It’s just as well. I wouldn’t have “gotten it”. In some ways I don’t get it now. I appear to be immune to the appeal of psychedelia for its own sake, so much of Head leaves me cold. But still there’s the lingering feeling that there is something there to “get”, that it’s not just randomly assembled images.

It’s odd that The Monkees TV series should be so derivative of A Hard Day’s Night, but when they got around to making a feature, it was something completely other. Regardless of the merit of the film, I find myself respecting the courage it took to make it.

Head is a hazy dream of a movie, with no real plot – or, perhaps, too many plots and no resolution to any of them. If I must compare it to the Beatles – which seems inevitable – it bears a resemblance to the later Magical Mystery Tour. It drifts smoothly from scene to scene as if defying the audience to follow, but the scenes do not logically follow each other. It is continuous, but not linear.

There are countless tantalizing hints of sense. Mike says “You think they call us plastic now, babe, but wait 'til I get through telling them how we do it.” I long for a payoff for that, but it never comes. Several scenes begin in the set used on the television series for the apartment the boys share, but usually shot from some odd angle never used in the show.

I can see the boys’ influences on it. (They contributed to the screenplay, although they are uncredited.) I can almost imagine some of the conversations that led up to it. Micky would have insisted that he likes doing the physical, visual comedy, and that he wants a scene doing that. Mike would have insisted that they use one of his songs, preferably in such a way that proves he actually does know how to play the guitar. Davy would have said he’s tired of being “the cute one”, he was a actor, singer, and dancer before the Monkees found him, and he’d like to do more of that.

And Peter would say that he’s tired of being the dumb one, and would they please give him something intelligent to say?

And all of these requests were granted. Micky is given some bizarre physical shtick to do, and he does it as well as anybody could. The third song in the film is Mike’s “Circle Sky”, in footage from a live concert. Davy gets an old-fashioned production number, and dances with a very young Toni Basil (to “Daddy’s Song”, a Nilsson tune reminiscent of Davy’s earlier “Cuddly Toy”).

And Peter? Peter gets a scene where there’s nothing on screen but him and a candle, and he holds my attention. Peter gets to tell us, as clearly as we ever get it, what this movie is actually about:

We were talking … regarding the nature of conceptual reality.

Psychologically speaking, the human mind, or brain or whatever, is almost incapable of distinguishing between the real and the vividly imagined experience. Sound and film, music and radio, even these manipulated experiences are received more or less directly and uninterpreted by the mind. They are catalogued and recorded, and either acted on directly, or stored in the memory, or both.

Now, this process, unless we pay it tremendous attention, begins to separate us from the reality of the now.

Or, more simply: Yes, we’re packaged entertainment. All show business is. Get a life; We’re trying to. And for God’s sake don’t believe anything you see on TV.

Now, try to imagine Britney Spears telling her audience something like that.

Take that, and the fact that the film’s advertising downplayed the Monkees’ even being in it, and it’s not hard to understand why the fans reacted the way they did:

It killed the group. Stopped it dead in its tracks. It made less than $15,000 in theatrical release.

Not everybody connected with this film suffered from their involvement with it. It was, after all, co-written by Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson pre-Five Easy Pieces[1] and featured Teri Garr in an early speaking role.[2]

Annette Funicello plays Davy’s girlfriend in his “movie within a movie”, where Sonny Liston beats the snot out of him; Victor Mature plays the head in which the boys portray dandruff, among other things; Frank Zappa just happens along. Look, I know it doesn’t make sense. That’s the point, really.

Such a valiant, fascinating, effort at storytelling deserves more serious study than I have time to give it here.

But somehow I don’t think that thirty years from now we’ll still be talking about n’Sync.

[1] Yes,that Jack Nicholson, and he can be seen onscreen in a key Peter scene. Say that five times fast.

[2] Have you ever noticed how often Garr plays women whose men live in some other reality? In Head she is the western pioneer woman who begs cavalry sergeant Micky to suck the poison out of her snake bite, just before Micky pulls the fake Indian arrows out of his chest and walks off through the backdrop. Compare this to her roles in Star Trek: “Assignment Earth”, Close Encounters, The Black Stallion, Oh God!, Young Frankenstein, and Tootsie. The typical Garr quote is “But I don’t understand.”

Daniel Taylor: Monday, January 15, 2001