There are movies, and there are time capsules. And then, there is “Head.” This movie is both easy and difficult, entertaining yet horrible, a masterpiece, but not quite. It will also irritate the hell out of you once your pothead roommates rediscover it for the seventeenth time.
That said, “Head” isn’t all that hard to figure out, although a quick lesson in pop music history helps. The 60’s were as disparate as any time, with the real world happening out on the streets and overseas in Vietnam, while much of the entertainment media tried to hold on to a sugarcoated utopia. Somewhere in between were the Monkees, a three-fourths American answer to the British invasion led by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. They were just as cute, but better: not only would they be in everyone’s home every week, they also didn’t actually need to play music. This was television, after all.
Explaining the plot is a moot point. It would be like explaining how the Wolf Man shows up in “Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” even though he was cured of his affliction in “House of Dracula.” Just as Lon Chaney Jr. was there to support Universal’s comedy team, the Monkees are in this movie to run around, dance and crack jokes… at first. In answer to assaults on their pre-fabricated image, the band responds, overwhelmingly, with commentary on music, television, movies, advertising, drugs, and especially the war. The Monkees are like HAL in “2001,” a machine expected to perform, or at least pretend to, at its master’s whim, now evolved into its own thinking, Socratic entity.
The band actually became a band by the time this movie was made. Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork could already play guitar and bass, so it didn’t take long before Mickey Dolenz learned drums and Davey Jones learned, well, maracas. The difference between their early work and their music as an actual band is stunning. “Daydream Believer” and “The Porpoise Song” are so different, it’s hard to believe you’re hearing the same band. Perhaps this is why the audience of teenage girls rips them to shreds, exposing them as plastic mannequins. (This would be echoed years later in Brian De Palma’s “Phantom of the Paradise.”)
The movie is also really funny. There are the usual wisecracks from the series, plus the bizarre self-awareness rarely seen in television or movies of the day. This keeps things going, if only barely. Kudos are in order for recognizing what the Marx Brothers’ movies didn’t: we’re here for comedy, not subplots with bad studio actors. This movie is all about the Monkees, who, despite the craziness of the times, remind us that it’s okay to chuckle a bit at how retarded things can get. (Today’s pop dummies have yet to show this band’s gusto, but since they don’t even pretend to play instruments, I wouldn’t hold my breath.)
Rent it, enjoy it, and don’t expect more than a fun time. There are a few shocks here and there, but nothing that will make you want to protest in the streets or join Greenpeace. It’s way too abstract to really get its point(s) across, which does the movie a disservice in the end. This could have started a trend, perhaps a subgenre, of rock n’ roll movies with actual thought put into them. Instead, it dips its fingers into too many pies, becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. “Head” makes a valiant effort, and will hopefully inspire other filmmakers and rock bands to do it right next time.
By the way, there’s supposed to be a 110-minute director’s cut lying around out there, in the same alternate dimension as the opening robbery of “Escape From New York” and the original Greedo scene from “Star Wars.” Perhaps it’s a good thing that it stay there, because I can’t imagine this movie being much better at any length.