The Monkees Set Fire to Their Pop Image in Head

The Monkees Set Fire to Their Pop Image in <em>Head</em>

When Bob Rafelson’s 1968 debut film, Head, was released, it completed a downward trajectory that transformed the Monkees from international phenomenon to pop pariah. The movie, which plays like a poison-pen suicide note, follows the band on a trippy odyssey and begins with the oblique shocker of band member Micky Dolenz jumping off a bridge. This fatalistic opener matched the downbeat mood surrounding the Monkees’ career at the time: the film came out months after NBC canceled their wildly popular TV show. With the possible exception of Robert Mulligan’s Inside Daisy Clover, Head is the angriest Hollywood backlot satire of its era.

It’s certainly the furthest thing from a piece of fan service. From the ways it implicates the conformism of its audience and deconstructs TV production and spectatorship, you can detect how sour the band’s relationship to fame was. The Monkees had been created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider in 1965, and within a few short years everyone involved had become frustrated with the limitations of the brand and the way its small-screen origins obscured the genuine talents of the band members. Rafelson, who cowrote the script with a prefame Jack Nicholson, conceived the film as a way of exploding the Monkees’ reputation as a manufactured product. With its Duck Amuck–like momentum, Head evokes the futility of being stuck on a hamster wheel with no escape. At this point in their lives, the band and Rafelson wanted out of their situation, and the repetitiveness of having to perform up to the standards set by their polarizing image is felt throughout the soundtrack.

Underlying the Monkees’ popularity was the widespread understanding that they had been set up for success by music producer Don Kirshner, who enlisted the best talent from the Brill Building to make chart-ready songs for them on an episodic basis. The group’s vocal talents were undeniable, but it was known that they did not play their own instruments, which kept them from being considered equals among the great pop acts of the mid-1960s, like the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles. As the counterculture emerged in the late sixties, the predominant sound of pop began to move away from the Brill Building to the more laidback, eccentric atmosphere of Laurel Canyon; people wanted musicians to embody an antiestablishment spirit that could challenge the commercial formula of the three-minute single. To the general public, the Monkees may have represented the antithesis of authenticity, but they weren’t just the brainchild of a network television suit reacting to a trend. In fact, Rafelson was a pioneer and had been pitching the idea of the Monkees in Hollywood before the British Invasion and the release of A Hard Day’s Night. The band was well aware of how it was perceived by the general public, and no member was more invested in wanting to be taken seriously than Michael Nesmith.

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