REKT: HEAD – A Monkees Masterpiece or an Unwatchable Mess?

This is REKT, the column where each month one Cinepunx staffer recommends films to the rest of the fam. We may be stoked, or we may be wrecked. This month, it’s Joe Yanick’s turn to do the damage. Here are Justin Harlan‘s thoughts on Head (1968).

 

“The porpoise is laughing, goodbye, goodbye…”

Ever since I heard “The Porpoise Song” by The Monkees in 2001’s Vanilla Sky, I’ve been fascinated with the song. Growing up with a dad who routinely listened to oldies and watched reruns of The Monkees, I was very familiar with the band, their show, and a good bit of their music. However, this song was quite an anomaly. While I’m sure I’d heard it before its inclusion in the Vanilla Sky soundtrack, it never struck me the way it did when I encountered it again during the aforementioned mindfuck of a film. However, seeing the film on home video with my wife (then, girlfriend), I began to slowly become much more fascinated with the song and began to look into the film which it came from originally.

1968’s Head is a film that had been on my radar ever since, but I’d somehow avoided checking it out until now. When I saw it on Joe’s REKT list, I jumped on it. It was finally time to dive head first into Head.

Let’s start with the band and how they got to this point. The Monkees were put together for a would-be hit television sitcom inspired by Beatlesmania running rampant in the country, and the show debuted on NBC in September of 1966. While the band initially had very limited input into the music and were even limited in what they performed themselves, as time progressed they became more involved, but the band members were often disappointed and discouraged by the fact that the rock music world seemed to consider them only as actors playing the roles of band members. They felt as if they were never taken seriously as musicians and musical artists.

Thus, when the television show was coming to a close, the band teamed up with then relatively unknown Jack Nicholson to make a psychedelic art film that would showcase their musical talent and unique artistic vision, while still allowing them to have fun and play up the satirical elements of their comedy. Essentially, a blended variety show and avant garde art film. The film’s reception ranges from some heralding it as genius and others calling it pointless garbage. And, while my personal opinion is closer to the latter than the former, I do think that the film has some very interesting moments and is something worth exploration.

Now that we’ve gotten to the film itself, I will start by stating outright that it wasn’t at all for me. I wanted to love it. I want to support it. I really love who The Monkees are and who they are trying to be. However, this film really misses the mark for me. I think it’s mostly because long form, plotless, art films simply don’t tend to work for me. While some segments will stick with me and work as standalone shorts, the film as a whole simply felt like a chore with nothing more than brief, fun intermissions that come and go in a sea of boring, pointless dreck.

While it may be hard to come back from calling a film “pointless dreck” and hit its positive aspects, I’m going to try to do just that. First and foremost, it is a film that foregoes placing itself within any superficial boundaries or boxes. The formula here is almost “there is no formula” in a sense, though that would be a bit unfair to say; it does have a certain frenetic pacing and structure that feels very intentional. There is certainly a familiar tone to their television show, which adds an element of comfort and familiarity that should appeal to fans of the show. Though, the film is clearly less narrative and more disjointed.

There is also something to be said about a bizarre, psychedelic film that retained a G rating. In other words, this is a family friendly acid trip that balances biting satire and intense psychedelia, while not including “objectionable” material. This means it can be watched by all ages and groups. As a parent, I do like having the occasional film in my collection that I don’t have to pause or turn off whenever young, impressionable eyes and minds walk into the room.

Most importantly, I noted earlier that there are a few segments that really landed with me. The melodramatic desert Coca-Cola machine (as pictured above) made with laugh, while also making me think about consumer culture and the segment’s use of the idea of a desert oasis/mirage. Several of the segments about war and violence are also interesting from a satirical standpoint, even if they don’t necessarily hit as hard as I want them to; though being able to provide biting social commentary while remaining at the G/PG MPAA level is impressive.

Having watched numerous Monkees documentaries and the biopic Daydream Believer, I’m now feeling quite happy to have completed my Monkees experience by finally watching Head… albeit, admittedly, I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. It has a ton of merits and certainly has cultural importance, but it’s simply not made for me. Perhaps one day I’ll revisit it and have a different take, but for now it falls into a very specific category: films I wholly recommend despite not really enjoying much at all. It felt like a chore to get through, but coming out of the other end, I feel a sense of accomplishment. So, as much as I didn’t enjoy the film, I must thank Joe for the recommendation.

Justin Harlan

Justin Harlan

Justin is not punk enough for Liam, nor does he have good enough taste in film for Liam. He's working on the latter, but not really the former. He runs The Farsighted and also writes over Cinapse and Rock on Philly. Don't dream it, be it.
Justin Harlan
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