Living Is a Lie: Head, The Monkees, Career Suicide, and the Nature of Conceptual Reality

Warning: the following discusses Head in detail and contains spoilers.

Head. In which The Monkees get stoned, commit career suicide, and end up accidentally making one of the best movies of the 1960s.

Much has already been written about how the Prefab Four came to make Head, so I’ll just offer the basics: their TV series canceled and their frustration over their very Monkee-ness growing, the quartet went away for a weekend with Monkees co-creator Bob Rafelson and friend Jack Nicholson, got stoned out of their minds and brainstormed a string random ideas, which Nicholson later molded into a bizarre, mostly plotless screenplay, the sort of stream of consciousness storytelling that’s very much of its time. Subtlety was pushed aside in favor of a straight-up Airing of Grievances, the foursome repeatedly bemoaning their artificial reputation.

Indeed, no review of Head would be complete without a quote from “Ditty Diego – War Chant” and its sarcastic opening verse:

Hey, hey, we are the Monkees
You know we love to please
A manufactured image
With no philosophies

And, later in the song:

The money’s in, we’re made of tin
We’re here to give you more!

A repeated image in Head is of the foursome replaced by mannequins, cheap replicas which can effortlessly stand in for the real deal. In one scene, Mike Nesmith underlines the idea: “You think they call us plastic now, babe, but wait ’til I get through telling them how we do it.” This line betrays an earlier sequence in which we see the band play Nesmith’s “Circle Sky” live by suggesting the repeated cries of “but we really do play our own instruments!” might require a footnote caveat: *sometimes, but only when we want to, and rarely with all four of us in the same room. (Despite their recent success in taking control of their music in the studio, their pre-Head album, The Birds, The Bees & The Monkees, was a piecemeal effort using studio musicians, the four seldom collaborating with each other.)

Other images of their self-loathing abound: a concert ends with a mob of souvenir-seeking fans lifting not only their clothing, but body parts as well; the studio commissary empties out whenever the band arrives; several scenes send up Peter Tork’s status as “the dumb one;” the band repeatedly find themselves locked within a formless black box, unable to escape (think of the box as network pressure, unbreakable contracts, public image, etc.); Frank Zappa stops by to ridicule Davy Jones as both a musician and a role model; a waitress calls the band “God’s gift to the eight-year-olds.” The message is clear: You hate The Monkees? So do we.

And so: career suicide. The movie both opens and closes with the band jumping to their death – again, so much for subtlety – but the final shot suggests something more. Following a reprise of “Porpoise Song” and the solarized underwater visuals that went with it, the foursome find themselves suddenly in the very black box which trapped them earlier, which reveals they already knew that even a film this weird couldn’t entirely free them from being The Monkees. They could make great art but they’d still be dismissed; they could self-destruct but they’d still be locked into a couple more years as a band owned by someone else.

This self-awareness takes Head to an even greater level of meta than before, with all those scenes of the foursome quitting filming mid-scene to walk off set. This isn’t a movie about career suicide; it’s a movie about knowing career suicide won’t work but trying anyway because, hell, man, why not?

Of course, you don’t walk away from a drug-fueled brainstorm session with a film that quite unified in theme. And so Head winds up actually being three movies at once: in addition to the career suicide bit, there’s the psychedelic musical and, eventually, a ramble, unfocused but quite interesting, about what Tork calls “the nature of conceptual reality.” To get to the third, let’s first discuss the second.

Head‘s loosey-goosey structure is essentially a platform for the quartet to do whatever they want without having to worry about tying anything together. The second stanza of “Ditty Diego” isn’t as famous (infamous?) as the first, but it does a better job at setting up what’s to follow:

We hope you like our story
Although there isn’t one
That is to say, there’s many
That way there is more fun

The freedom to do anything and go anywhere leads us to anti-war sequences (including the movie’s most on-the-nose scene, with the guys as cheerleaders leading the crowd to chant “WAR!” – the “ain’t this clever?” bit hasn’t aged well) and oddball schtick with Micky Dolenz fighting a Coke machine in the desert and random clips from old B-movies and, most enjoyably, a string of musical montages which play as early music videos. A sequence set to the Carole King/Toni Stern composition “As We Go Along” – arguably the best song written for a movie in the 1960s – features Tork strolling through snowy hills and lush forests, which ultimately has nothing to do with anything, unless you remember such scenes were common during episodes of the band’s TV series. These musical asides turn the film into an extension of the show far more than the brief use of the original Monkees set does.

This slapdash musical style allows more freedom in setting up the third movie, the thesis on reality itself. Plenty of this is little more than pot philosophy, to be sure; when Tork gently reiterates the Swami’s lesson on how “the human mind… is almost incapable of distinguishing between the real and the vividly imagined experience,” he’s hardly hiding the idea that he’s talking about the experience of tripping.

But that’s not all there is to his speech. Consider how Head repeatedly sets up a reality, then breaks it. The guys act out half a scene, only to walk off the set and head elsewhere, only to walk off that set, too. One scene starts by presenting itself as the dream of a policeman, only to merge into what we can assume is the band’s actual adventures at home. And, during that scene, we see a clear shot of the cameraman in a mirror. Characters get lost, found, and lost again, sometimes in the wrong order. Extras appear out of nowhere. The band starts a scene in one place and ends it in another.

Tork’s monologue tells us “sound and film and music and radio” are as vivid to the brain as both reality and drug-induced hallucination. “We must allow the reality of the now to just happen,” he adds, “as it happens.” Head’s constantly shifting reality is to be accepted, openly, as the truth – well, the truth as it is now, that is. If the truth is revealed to be a lie, it was still accepted as truth once, and we accept the new truth now.

As philosophy, it certainly has its holes, but it also places Head as a discussion of the nature of storytelling itself as a series of lies we accept as truths – which is how The Monkees saw themselves in 1968. A manufactured image of ever changing truths.

4 thoughts on “Living Is a Lie: Head, The Monkees, Career Suicide, and the Nature of Conceptual Reality

  1. Citizencolguy says:

    Solid work here! When I got back into a Monkees phase about 3 months ago I decided to try and force myself to sit down and watch this, but I only made halfway through. With your perspective added on, I might just have to give this another go. It won’t be easy, but it will be done.

  2. HandsomeDude says:

    Your analysis of the movie’s symbolic levels may be valid, but none of that actually makes it a good movie. The jokes fall flat, the satire is limp, and none of its dated innovations or rebellious extremes make it more than a revealing artifact of its time. Champion it as a worthwhile time capsule or complex experiment, sure, but calling it “one of the best movies of the 1960s” is ludicrous and calls into question all that follows.

  3. Nature Boy says:

    I believe the key to the film is the concept of free will vs pre determination. The band walks off of sets to exercise their free will. The band protests its image as an attempt at showing free will. But in fact, those walk offs and protests are scripted. So even their supposed free will is in fact pre determined. The rebelliousness of the film is true and false, as the rebellion is as manufactured as the band was in the first place. Tork comments on this in one of his monologues, only for none of the others to actually get what he is saying… And then he forgets that he said it.

    The ultimate act of free will, suicide, proves to be pre determined with the boys ending up in the box, right where they started. This was and is a multi-level statement, and there is no way a core Monkees fan of the period would ever have gotten it. Which also was part of the point.

    In summary, the film is as unknowing about the concepts of free will vs pre determination as most philosophies that attempt to address the topic, but at least it admits its unknowingness unlike, say, religion.

    Or, in summary, a brilliant idea with a more than strange implementation.

  4. […] later years, the movie would gain a cult following. Some fans view it as a fine example of surreal filmmaking, while others just think it’s an […]

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