How the 1968 Psychedelic Film Head Destroyed the Monkees & Became a Cult Classic

The 1960s moved very fast. The Bea­t­les start­ed 1963 as four fresh­ly scrubbed mop­tops from Liv­er­pool. By 1968 they were hairy hip­pies dab­bling in drugs and mys­ti­cism. (And writ­ing some of the best music of all time, don’t get me wrong!). Then there were the Mon­kees. Cre­at­ed by Bob Rafel­son and Bert Schnei­der in 1966 as a lov­ing homage to the Bea­t­les 1964–65 Richard Lester films, it too quick­ly changed. By 1968, the show and the band had run its course. There was already no cul­tur­al space for four lov­able…any­things. And while many ele­ments killed the opti­mism and rad­i­cal hope of the 1960s–Vietnam, bad acid, Man­son, Alta­mont–hats off to Head, the cult movie that anni­hi­lat­ed The Mon­kees as a band, the band movie as a con­cept, and the con­cept of light enter­tain­ment as being on the side of the view­er. Obscen­i­ty, who real­ly cares? asked Dylan a few years before. Pro­pa­gan­da, all is pho­ny. That’s Head.

What’s inter­est­ing about the Head sto­ry is try­ing to fig­ure out the moti­va­tions of sev­er­al of the play­ers. The Mon­kees them­selves were tired of being seen as an ersatz band, although by all accounts they were. Rafel­son and com­pa­ny audi­tioned young actors and musi­cians and assem­bled the top four into the band/TV show. Most of the songs were writ­ten by Tin Pan Alley stal­warts like Neil Dia­mond or Car­ole King, or up and com­ing artists like Har­ry Nils­son. By being a fake band for two sea­sons of their show, how­ev­er, the Mon­kees had turned into a real band. But what they were turn­ing into was not the Mon­kees that the teens loved. Who had the appetite for destruc­tion first? The mon­ster? Or the mad sci­en­tists?

Hav­ing con­quered tele­vi­sion and the radio—-the Mon­kees had kept the Bea­t­les and the Stones out of the Num­ber One posi­tion in 1966-—Rafelson sought to con­quer film, and by doing so, offer up a mea cul­pa of sorts: yes, this group was a pre­fab­ri­ca­tion. Yes, we’re going to tear it all down. Inspired by exper­i­men­tal film­mak­ers like Stan Brakhage and Ken­neth Anger, Rafel­son, the band, and up-and-com­ing actor Jack Nichol­son decamped in ear­ly 1968 to a resort motel in Ojai, CA. There they smoked a lot of weed, and record­ed hours of con­ver­sa­tions. Nichol­son and Rafel­son lat­er dosed LSD and fash­ioned the tapes into a script.

Head is con­struct­ed in vignettes, jump­ing thru gen­res like a per­son with an itchy remote con­trol fin­ger. Vin­tage movie clips and crass com­mer­cials inter­rupt the action. The television—-which both sold hap­py pro­pa­gan­da along­side har­row­ing clips from Viet­nam to Amer­i­cans every night—-is not to be trust­ed.

“The band is con­stant­ly being chased, attacked, torn apart, caged, sucked up in a giant vac­u­um and impris­oned in a big black box that reap­pears through­out the movie,” crit­ic Petra May­er wrote in 2018, look­ing back at the cult film. “They can’t escape — not with phi­los­o­phy, not with force. They nev­er escape.”

A year ear­li­er the Bea­t­les had real­ized their own trap, and escaped thru the pos­i­tive mag­ic of Sgt. Pepper’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band. In 1968, the Mon­kees didn’t get the lux­u­ry. Self-aware­ness and self-destruc­tion con­tin­ues as an occa­sion­al career move by unhap­py pop artists-—Pink Floyd, Prince, Garth Brooks, David Bowie-—but the Mon­kees destroyed them­selves first, and most spec­tac­u­lar­ly. Head cost $750,000 to make, and made $16,000 back.

“Most of our fans could­n’t get in because there was an age restric­tion and the intel­li­gentsia would­n’t go to see it any­way because they hat­ed the Mon­kees,” said Dolenz. Rafel­son and Nichol­son made out okay. They would go on to Easy Rid­er and estab­lish their film careers. The Mon­kees? Not as much.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, the one Mon­kee who spoke well of the film’s cult lega­cy was their most crit­i­cal mem­ber, Michael Nesmith.

“It has a life that comes from lit­er­a­ture,” he told inter­view­er Doug Gor­don. “It has a life that comes from fic­tion. It has a life that comes from fan­ta­sy and the deep troves of mak­ing up sto­ries and nar­ra­tive. But it was telling a nar­ra­tive, but the nar­ra­tive that it was telling was very, very dif­fer­ent than the one the tele­vi­sion show was.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch Frank Zap­pa Play Michael Nesmith (RIP) on The Monkees–and Vice Ver­sa (1967)

Jimi Hen­drix Opens for The Mon­kees on a 1967 Tour; Then After 8 Shows, Flips Off the Crowd and Quits

Watch the Last Time Peter Tork (RIP) & The Mon­kees Played Togeth­er Dur­ing Their 1960s Hey­day: It’s a Psy­che­del­ic Freak­out

How a Fake Car­toon Band Made “Sug­ar Sug­ar” the Biggest Sell­ing Hit Sin­gle of 1969

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (4)
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  • James says:

    Yep — Cult Clas­sic indeed — they made the Bea­t­les movies look like ama­teur films — I always all — Head — the great­est rock and roll movie — ever

  • Alex Pearlstein says:

    This movies in my top five! It’s rat­ed g and just plays on your expec­ta­tions while breaks all the stan­dard con­ven­tions for films. This movie acts as if the world itself is spoiled up like the film on the pro­jec­tor, and the mon­keys trav­el from film cell to film cell rather than see­ing the scene. It is tru­ly a won­der of nature. Film unlike any oth­er, while still being exact­ly the same as the rest. It’s tru­ly one of the few movies I can think of that can nev­er be reboot­ed or redone. Because the foun­da­tion of this film begins well before the first scene.

  • Scotto says:

    you can watch a bet­ter upload (the cri­te­ri­on ver­sion) here:

  • editrice says:

    the film is total garbage. who cares that Bert schneider’s dad head­ed colum­bia pic­tures, the film cost a huge amt of mon­ey in its time to make. you’d have thought some­one would have put a stop to it. bad acid trip there.
    won­der if vic­tor mature ever regret­ted nesmith’s talk­ing him into doing it. the rest, i guess, includ­ing nichol­son, were just build­ing their careers

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