If Catch Us If You Can is a surprising film, Bob Rafelson’s Head (released in 1968) is frankly astonishing. The film was a vehicle for the US boy band the Monkees, who were widely considered to be America’s answer to the Beatles. The band was originally brought together for a television series, which aired 58 episodes between 1966 and 1968: Rafelson (later to become a leading ‘indie’ director) was executive producer. The band did not play the instruments on their early records (although they did sing), and they were widely dismissed as manufactured and ‘plastic’; yet at their peak, they outsold the Beatles and the other ‘British invasion’ bands. While Rafelson and the Monkees were happy to rake in the cash for a couple of years, they became increasingly disenchanted. Head might well be seen as the culmination of a growing struggle for control – if not as a kind of cinematic suicide note.
The film was initially scripted by Rafelson and co-producer Jack Nicholson, along with members of the band, while all were apparently tripping on LSD. Trailers – and the opening credits – described the resulting film (not so inaccurately) as ‘the most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever filmed (and that’s putting it mildly)’. The studio (Columbia) didn’t quite know what to do with the film. After an enigmatic publicity campaign (in which the band itself was not mentioned), low-key early screenings resulted in 25 minutes of cuts; but even then, the film was a commercial and critical disaster.
While Catch Us If You Can owes a certain amount to A Hard Day’s Night, Head owes a good deal more to Help! – although if Help! was partly fed by marijuana, Head is definitely fuelled by acid. (It’s worth noting that Jack Nicholson’s previous film as a writer was Roger Corman’s The Trip, made in 1967.) Like the Monkees’ TV series, the film is heavy on a kind of manufactured ‘zaniness’: the narrative leaps from one improbable event to another with little apparent logic, and there is a good deal of surreal humour and cinematic trickery. In a 2010 interview, Rafelson described how he saw the film as being in ‘a continuum of the American experimental way of making movies’, mentioning avant-garde film-makers like Stan Brakhage, Kenneth Anger and Norman MacLaren – although he claimed that making such a movie with the Monkees was highly ‘contradictory’, ‘like making an ice cream cone out of mud’.
Summarising the plot of Head is rather like attempting to write a précis of an acid trip. The film follows the Monkees through a range of settings, many of which appear to exist on a Hollywood studio back-lot: these include the set of a war film, a horror movie and a Western, a desert, a factory, and a boxing match. In the process, the Monkees are sucked into a giant vacuum cleaner, trapped inside an empty black box (and eventually an aquarium), and transformed into dandruff; they smoke hookahs while watching belly-dancers, meet a swami who purports to offer the key to enlightenment, and (in the opening and again in the conclusion of the film) they jump off a suspension bridge and swim with mermaids.
Individual Monkees also perform vignettes: Davey does a Top Hat-style song-and-dance routine, Peter gets into a fight with a transvestite waitress in a café, Mickey has strange encounters with a surrendering Italian army in the desert, while Mike is the focus of an unwelcome psychedelic birthday party. There are also guest stars performing often incongruous roles, including the faded Hollywood star Victor Mature, the boxer Sonny Liston, the Disney actress Annette Funicello, and the rock musician Frank Zappa (as ‘The Critic’), as well as brief appearances by Rafelson, Nicholson and their associates Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. All this is interspersed with ‘music video’ sequences in which the band performs several songs, seemingly unrelated to the main action.
If there is a consistent narrative thread through all of this, it is to do with the Monkees being confined in ways they do not want or understand: they are held in boxes, cages and a glass aquarium, and in one scene they are chained to a wall. They are also seemingly trapped in illogical narratives from Westerns, melodramas and horror movies, and in surreal dream-like encounters. They are hunted and interrogated, and frequently come into conflict with adult authority figures – police, soldiers, the factory owner, ‘Big Victor’ (Mature) and ‘Lord High ‘n’ Low’ – from whom they are constantly seeking to escape. For much of the time, they seem powerless, lost and confused in a world of representations; yet they also frequently express their disgust and rejection of the roles they are having to perform.
To some extent, this kind of formal play is carried over from the Monkees’ TV series. The programme often featured parodies of media genres, and musical numbers and comic sketches were inserted with little apparent logic. The Monkees would sometimes deliberately overact, pull out their scripts, or break the ‘fourth wall’ by directly addressing the camera; and episodes frequently concluded with excerpts from interviews purporting to be with the ‘real’ Monkees.
As on TV, the band members play ‘themselves’ here, but the film announces its rejection of the prefabricated construct of ‘The Monkees’ right from the outset. In the pre-credits sequence, Mickey bursts through a police cordon and leaps from the bridge in an apparent suicide attempt; and as he swims with mermaids (in bright psychedelic solarised colours and slow-motion), the soundtrack plays ‘the Porpoise Song’ (‘an overdub has no choice, an image cannot rejoice…’ and ‘the porpoise is laughing goodbye, goodbye, goodbye…’). We then cut to black screen, with a montage of small television screens gradually filling the shot. This is accompanied by a recited version of the theme song from the TV show. Entitled ‘Ditty Diego’, it is worth quoting at some length:
Hey hey, we are the Monkees – You know we love to please – A manufactured image – With no philosophies…
For those who look for meanings – And form as they do fact – We might tell you one thing – But we’ll only take it back…
You say we’re manufactured – To that we all agree – So make your choice, and we’ll rejoice – In never being free
Hey hey we are the Monkees – We’ve said it all before – The money’s in, we’re made of tin – We’re here to give you more!
Shortly afterwards, we see the Monkees running to escape their screaming fans (dressed all in white, as compared with the Beatles’ black); and they then perform a live version of ‘Circle Sky’, an anti-war song that is significantly more ‘rocky’ than many of their best-known hits. The audience’s chant changes to the letters ‘W – A – R’, and their screams are gradually mixed in with footage of war atrocities, and especially of Vietnamese women and children, including the notorious shot of the execution of the Vietcong soldier Bảy Lốp. At the conclusion of the song, the girls invade the stage and appear to tear the band to shreds, only to reveal that they are in fact mannequins. ‘The Monkees’ are literally deconstructed.
Elsewhere, this commentary on media image-making turns even more specifically to the phenomenon of the boy band. At one point, they encounter a crazed marketer called Lord High ‘n’ Low, who tries to sell them his merchandising plan: ‘the idea is this: by-products! Imagine the tie-ins! Blonde wigs for kids! Swords! The whole phallic thing is happening!… Millions, I’m tellin’ ya, millions!’ They then enter a café, where a sarcastic cross-dressed waitress greets them: ‘well, if it isn’t god’s gift to the eight-year-olds!’ She goes on to suggest that the producers ‘write some talent’ for the band, and she goads Peter: ‘are you still paying tribute to Ringo Starr?’ A fight ensues, and when the director (Rafelson as ‘himself’) shouts ‘cut!’, Peter remonstrates with him that being seen to hit a girl will not be good for the band’s image – ‘it’s a movie for kids… kids aren’t gonna dig it’.
This critique of the ‘mechanisms of mass communications’ is one that can also be found in Catch Us If You Can and (more marginally) in several of the other films I’ve considered – although here it serves to undermine the illusion of realism and the logic of the narrative. Head’s view of the media is enraged, and almost vicious at times, and seems to reflect a particularly 1960s countercultural paranoia. When Mickey encounters a Coca-Cola machine in the desert, he attacks it, and then eventually blows it up with a missile from a tank, accompanied by the familiar advertising jingle. At one point, a mentally disabled man appears to support Mike’s protests about the unwanted birthday party – but the Monkees are then urged ‘don’t never make fun of no cripples’. There is then an illogical series of vox pop street interviews in which people give their views on the dangers of laughing at others, and offer increasingly authoritarian solutions. Several sequences are interspersed with rapid montages of TV and advertising clips, seemingly reinforcing the idea of mass culture as a kind of illusion – a view that became part of the zeitgeist at the time, not least through the popular dissemination of writers like Marshall McLuhan and Herbert Marcuse. At the very end of the film, the Columbia studios logo gets trapped in the projector and burns in the gate – a final incendiary gesture towards the ‘media machine’.
To some extent, this view is reinforced by a hippy metaphysical strain, which is partly announced in ‘Ditty Diego’. This film is not going to be about ‘form’ and ‘fact’, the lyric informs us, and the narrative may not be presented in a logical sequence: there will be many stories, rather than just one. When the Monkees encounter the swami, he offers them a familiar metaphysical analysis (accompanied by the obligatory sitar twanging):
Psychologically speaking, the human mind or brain is almost incapable of distinguishing between the real and the vividly imagined experience. Sound and film, music and radio, even these manipulated experiences are received more or less directly, uninterpreted by the mind. This process, unless we give it tremendous attention, begins to separate us from the Reality of the Now. For we must allow the Reality of the Now to just happen as it happens. Observe, and act with clarity. Because where there is clarity, there is no choice. And where there is no choice, there is misery.
Of course, it’s hard to know how far these truly cosmic insights are intended to be satirical – although they are later repeated almost word-for-word by Peter when the band are confined in the box. Both Peter and the swami hasten to add that they ‘know nothing’, and Davey then rejects their advice in favour of fighting their way out. Yet the film is not only about escaping from the constraints of stardom and the music industry; it is also about escaping from personality and the illusion of the self. And as its title implies, there is the possibility that everything we are seeing is in fact taking place in the mind.
Despite its reflection of these elements of sixties culture, the box-office failure of Head isn’t difficult to understand. One of the central problems was to do with the intended audience. The film took elements of the TV series, but accentuated them beyond absurdity: it was unlikely to make much sense to the band’s established fan base of young kids and pre-teens – and indeed it was marketed with the come-on ‘not suitable for children’, and as ‘a movie for a turned-on audience’. Head might well be seen as the Monkees’ attempt to transform themselves into an ‘adult’ rock group – or indeed (as Paul Ramaeker suggests) to achieve some kind of credibility in the counter-culture. Yet this was a fundamental contradiction in terms: the Monkees could only escape, or make this move, by destroying themselves. As Mike puts it in the film, ‘you think they call us plastic now, but you wait till I get through telling them how we do it’. Even amid the psychedelia of the late 1960s, this seems to have been a story that audiences were not ready to hear.
Fifty years after its release, Head has acquired a substantial cult status: it has been screened several times on television, and re-released in high-status DVD series, as well as attracting more positive critical attention. Considerable numbers of bytes have been expended on explaining the film’s many in-jokes and references; and it seems that the director and the surviving band members are revising their earlier negative opinions of it. In my view, it’s rather banal to conclude (as some have done) that the film was postmodern before its time, or that it somehow speaks to our contemporary condition. Rather, I would see it as a highly sarcastic, almost vitriolic commentary on the phenomenon of the pop film itself – and by extension, on the mediated, commercialized nature of pop stardom at the time. After little more than ten years of its existence, the pop film had effectively imploded.
The pop film, at least as I’ve defined it here, was essentially a phenomenon of the 1950s and 1960s. Writers on the genre have pointed to several subsequent films that might fit the description. Stephen Glynn, for example, traces the ‘decadence’ of the pop film in the late 1960s and 1970s through movies like Performance (directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, 1970) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicholas Roeg, 1976) – although in my view, the appearance of pop performers in acting roles (in these instances, Mick Jagger and David Bowie respectively) does not qualify them as pop films. David Essex’s movies That’ll Be the Day (Claude Whatham, 1973) and Stardust (Michael Apted, 1974) might reflect a lingering of the genre into the early 1970s, although interestingly both are set in the past, and should probably best be seen as film musicals; and one shouldn’t forget Slade (Slade in Flame, Richard Loncraine, 1975). Later instances – or perhaps throwbacks – might include the Spice Girls’ Spiceworld (Bob Spiers, 1997) or even Plan B’s Ill Manors (Ben Drew, 2012); and of course there are countless films that make extensive use of rock music in their soundtracks, as well as concert films and documentaries. However, the pop film conceived as a star vehicle effectively reached its end – and indeed, its final moment of self-destruction – with Head.
This was, most obviously, because of the rise of television – and perhaps specifically, of colour television (in the mid-1960s) and of more sophisticated video editing. As Andy Medhurst declared in the mid-1990s, pop films may not be dead, but they are ‘terribly unnecessary’, ‘like 78s in a CD world’. Particularly with the rise of music videos, the promotional purpose of the pop feature film effectively became superfluous. And yet, as I hope to have shown, the study of pop films during this relatively brief period can provide some broader insights into the way youth – and youth culture – were represented during a key period of historical change. These films reflect a continuing ambivalence, not only in ideas about youth, but also about the media and the music business, and about the process of representation itself.