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A Monkees 'Head' trip

The '68 film, written by Jack Nicholson, was a bomb, but it remains a surreal time capsule.

November 12, 2008|Susan King | King is a Times staff writer.

Forty years ago, the Monkees' only feature film, "Head," hit theaters -- and people have been scratching their heads ever since.

Though far from a masterpiece like the Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" from 1964, the film, starring Davy Jones, Peter Tork, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith, is a surreal time capsule -- a psychedelic, stream-of-consciousness blast from the past. It's as if Jean Cocteau had consumed lots of LSD and decided to make a rock movie. Only its true history is a lot trippier, considering that Jack Nicholson wrote the script and a motley crew of the era's icons appears in the film.

Tonight, the American Cinematheque's '60s-centric "Mods and Rockers" series will present a 40th anniversary screening of "Head," featuring Tork and Jones, plus other cast and crew members, in person.

When "Head" was released theatrically in November 1968, the Monkees could not have been less hip, admits Martin Lewis, the "Mods and Rockers" producer who's hosting the event.

"With the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the riots in Chicago, Paris and London, everything was very serious," Lewis says of the time. "Suddenly, though it had only been two years since the Monkees were created, it seemed like 20 years."

The Emmy Award-winning NBC sitcom "The Monkees," which followed the zany adventures of a struggling rock 'n' roll band in Los Angeles, had been canceled earlier that year.

Though the Monkees had scored numerous hits, including "Last Train to Clarksville," "Daydream Believer" and "I'm a Believer," their teeny-bopper fans were no longer buying their records. The counterculture was thriving. People were turning on and tuning in. Hendrix, Joplin and the Who were zooming up the charts.

So "Head" was a major bomb. The film had critics perplexed. Teeny-boppers didn't understand it, and those who considered themselves remotely hip wouldn't have been caught dead going to a movie with the "Prefab Four," as the Monkees were mockingly called.

A bad rap

Tork doesn't necessarily think the film failed because the Monkees were passe.

"The TV show had this huge ad campaign, and everybody went for all the hype," says Tork. "The 'Head' campaign was designed to be Postmodernist, and the commercials were off-putting. The hip thought it was going to be another bubble-gum movie, and they didn't want to see it. And the bubble-gum kids thought it was going to be a freak-out movie, and they didn't want to see it. I think if the movie had been thoroughly promoted in an appropriate way, it would have done much better."

Surprisingly enough, "Head" has quite the pedigree. It was directed by Bob Rafelson and produced by Bert Schneider, who also did the TV series. And it was written and produced by none other than Nicholson, who also makes a brief appearance in the movie. (Two years later, the three would collaborate on the classic drama "Five Easy Pieces.")

Also popping up in "Head" are Frank Zappa, surgically enhanced stripper Carol Doda, Dennis Hopper, Annette Funicello, Victor Mature, boxer Sonny Liston and even Teri Garr, who is billed as "Terry Garr."

The film itself, which spoofs movie genres, is definitely out there. At one point, the Monkees find themselves akin to pieces of dandruff in Mature's wavy black hair.

Dolenz jokes that he still doesn't understand the film, "and I was in it. . . . I don't think anybody knows what it is about."

He recalls Rafelson approaching him during the second season of the TV series about doing a movie. "I vaguely remember a conversation about what we would want to do and not want to do," says Dolenz. "I remember the general consensus was that we don't want to make a 90-minute episode of 'The Monkees.'

"In retrospect, that would have been much more commercially successful. On the other hand, we wouldn't have this wonderful, very bizarre film floating around now, which I am very proud of. I think I did some great work as an actor in the movie."

Rafelson introduced the group to Nicholson, who had written scripts before but nothing on an "A"-movie level.

"We hit it off with Jack famously, because he was and still is such a charismatic, intelligent and funny guy," Dolenz recalls.

For the next few months, Nicholson hung out on the show's set and visited the four at their homes, "just soaking up everything that was Monkee," Dolenz says. Then one weekend, he, Nicholson, Schneider and Rafelson spent a week at a golf resort brainstorming their concepts for the film into a tape recorder. "Jack took those tapes away with him and wrote the screenplay."

Timeless?

Though the film is 40 years old, "Head" doesn't seem dated, by Dolenz's estimation.

"There were a lot of movies about hippies [made then] getting turned on and all that stuff," he says. "Today, if you look at them, you sort of cringe in embarrassment when somebody drives by in a VW bus painted with flowers and goes, 'Groovy.' "

The counterculture era wasn't really like that, Dolenz says. "It was all very cerebral. It wasn't all about the trappings, the flowers and the bell-bottoms. It was more of what was going on inside of everybody's mind. They managed to capture the moment."

And that leads Lewis to conclude that, if the Monkees had been unknowns when "Head" premiered, the film might have fared better.

"If it had been introduced as a low-key, underground movie, it might have hit with the hip audience, who were looking for films against the commercial grain," he says. "It might have actually struck a chord with them."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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'Head'

Where: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: 7:30 tonight

Price: $10

Contact: (323) 466-FILM, www.egyptiantheatre.com

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