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Retro Cinema – Head

Retro Cinema – Head
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There are two musical sequences in the 1968 film HEAD which are among the most visually arresting concepts ever put on film. The first evolves from the film’s abrupt opening, where the Monkees disrupt the dedication of a new bridge Micky Dolenz, chased by his bandmates, jumps from the bridge and falls in slow-motion into a waterway that dissolves into psychedelic imagery.  The Porpoise Song, a trippy tune that floats with narcotized energy, pervades the soundtrack as a pair of pretty mermaids rescues Micky from the kaleidoscopic depths.

The second sequence features Davy Jones without the other Monkees performing “Daddy’s Song”, a music hall-style ditty written by Harry Nilsson.  Jones, assisted in an elaborate dance number by Toni Basil (who double-dutied as choreographer), sings and dances while the visual style keeps shifting a black-clad Jones and Basil against a white background is quickly replaced by a white-clad Jones and Basil against a black background. It is a hypnotic gimmick that works remarkably well, and Jones’ theatrical spin on “Daddy’s Song” suggests that his career could have gone further on the West End stage instead of in the realm of bubble gum pop.

Sadly, those sequences are barely remembered today because HEAD is recalled as the Monkees’ single disastrous adventure into feature films. After all, no one goes looking for great moments in flop films. The film’s legendary failure was due to a bloc of critics that dismissed the Monkees as lacking talent and Columbia Pictures’ stupidly decision to promote the film without mentioning the presence of the Monkees as its stars.

HEAD has gained some degree of cred over the years based on nostalgia for the Monkees and the tie-dyed giddiness of the late 1960s.  Of course, nostalgia can also diminish the severity of old failures and paint a deceptively pleasant memory that is at odds with the truth.

HEAD is an extremely mixed bag. Basically a plotless revue of weird skits and silly sight gags, with pauses for some acceptable (if forgettable) tunes, the film took a gamble by trying to elevate the Monkees from the level of tween novelty to hipster jokers. Its failure was not a lack of trying on the part of first-time director Bob Rafelson and creative collaborator Jack Nicholson (a year before his career turnaround in EASY RIDER). Indeed, much of the film offers witty and pointed barbs at Hollywood cliches and conventions, and a cheerful parade of unlikely self-deprecating stars (including Victor Mature, Annette Funicello, boxing champ Sonny Liston and Frank Zappa) add a happy lunacy to the endeavor.

The problem, quite frankly, is the Monkees. Throughout the film, the lack of chemistry between the quartet’s members is fairly obvious it often seems like the foursome was only introduced before the cameras began rolling. Dolenz and Jones clearly loved being on camera, and they constantly (and often winningly) hogged their scenes to the fullest. But their comrades Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork never seemed to be on the same energy wave with them, and the film had a lopsided clumsiness whenever all four were expected to interact. It is no surprise that the film’s two standout numbers were solo efforts and not a group interaction.

As for the music well, some Monkees’ fans insist that Nesmith “Circle Sky” was among the group’s finest, while “Diego Ditty War Chant” offered a cogent self-satire of the Monkees’ prefabricated roots. Eh, different strokes for different folks.

Ultimately, HEAD was a mess an interesting and entertaining mess at times, but still a mess. If there were flashes of brilliance midst its buffoonery and stumbling, at least it can take credit for getting it right for a few minutes.

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Phil Hall Phil Hall has enjoyed a three-decade career in the film industry as a journalist, critic, publicist, distributor, festival programmer and actor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Wired, American Movie Classics Magazine and Film Threat. He is the author of seven books, including "The History of Independent Cinema," "The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time" and "In Search of Lost Films."

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