Why ’Head’ is Such an Underrated Movie
During the late 1960s, American soldiers were being slaughtered in Vietnam, the Hippie Movement was beginning to grow, and the Monkees decided to make a movie. Originally, they were a four-man band consisting of actors David “Davy” Jones and Micky Dolenz, as well as musicians Peter Tork and Michael “Mike” Nesmith, who starred on a hit TV-show and performed concerts under the same name. While they were beloved by young teenage girls, and sold hit records, the band was constantly criticized for being “fake” due to the fact that their music was recorded by other artists while they simply contributed their vocals. For this reason, the Monkees wanted to play their own music, which put them at odds with their producers from NBC studios. So they made a psychedelic movie titled Head, which was intended to save their show from certain cancellation and appeal to a wider, mature audience. Unfortunately, the critics hated the film for being too outlandish and their fans thought it was too weird. But despite these faults, Head is actually a really good film, and it is only now beginning to be appreciated.
While other psychedelic films from the 1960s like Yellow Submarine and Easy Rider are strange for the sake of it, and make drugs one element out of a larger plot structure respectably, Head turns the bizarre imagery into a political statement. Though it could be argued that Easy Rider has a political statement going on for it as well, Head preceded Easy Rider by a year, and while Easy Rider has a few drug-related scenes within its serious plot structure, everything about Head is drug-induced psychedelia. By contrast, Yellow Submarine is a light-hearted animation with psychedelic imagery that isn’t meant to be taken seriously, and if there are political statements, they don’t make themselves clear on a surface-level. But unlike Yellow Submarine, Head creates deeper meaning behind its psychedelic images, and the political messages are easy to spot. So in a way, Head is combining the seriousness of Easy Rider in terms of its political statements, and the consistant psychedelic imagery that Yellow Submarine has, but as a live-action film.
For instance, there’s a concert scene in the movie that’s intended to be a parody of themselves with matching outfits reminiscent of their early years and hordes of screaming girls in the audience (see Fig. 1). But what they’re singing about isn’t daydream believers or taking the last train to Clarksville. It’s about Vietnam, and the film occassionally cuts to scenes of starving children, running women, and even a Vietnamese man being shot in the head to emphasize the message even more. Yet the girls continue their estatic screams without seeming to care about the song’s content, because all that matters is the Monkees themselves. Other scenes that have similar ramifications to this one are the Monkees telling a group of football fans in the bleachers to spell out “War” and being on the front-lines. What they all have in common besides the subject matter is how they illustrate the ignorance of the war at home while many men, women, and children were being killed overseas, with American soldiers included.
Of course, war wasn’t the only thing they were commenting on. The Monkees were also showing the evils of commercialism. There are two particular scenes that illustrate this. In the first scene, Micky is wandering through a desert with no water and he’s ready to collapse any minute. But then, he comes across a random Coke machine, and out of desperation, he puts a quarter into the machine. Unfortunately, the machine’s empty, so what does Micky do? Punch the hell out of it, of course (see Fig. 2). This scene is not only hilarious in its clear parody of product placement, but it also shows the heartlessness of corporate buisness when it comes to helping the average person. Another scene that has similar implications is when the Monkees find themselves pretending to be dandriff on a man’s head during a commercial for a miniture vacuum cleaner that sucks them into it. While the visual effects are amazing, considering that the film was made in 1968, the message is an obvious statement against the addictive nature of commercialism, considering that the Monkees get duped into something they stumbled on by accident and then getting sucked into the product that’s being sold literally, which could also be taken metaphorically. What these two scenes achieve is not only obvious satire of the thing they’re making fun of, but also a reflection of their own points of view on the subject.
Then the last thing that the Monkees criticize is television. Nowhere is this more clear than the constant appearance of “The Box”, a black structure which the Monkees keep winding up in for one reason or another. It’s like a prison to them, and they try every means necessary to get out of it throughout the course of the movie. Not only is “The Box” an obvious metaphor for television itself, but it also represents the Monkees’ struggle to break out of the mold that has shaped their image for so long in the media. “The Box” could also be considered a meta-commentary of how the media shapes our perceptions of the world by what they want us to see. This element is brought up during a particular scene where the Monkees have ended up in “The Box” for the second time, and Peter is revealing to the others what “The Box” actually means (see Fig. 3). It is nothing more than an illusion, but it is only made real when the mind believes it to be. Of course, this explanation gets muddled when the Monkees and everyone who traps them in “The Box” treats it like a physical object, even though it never stays in one place at a time.
While the imagery in this movie could simply be considered as strange and far-out as any psychedelic film, there is some real depth to those images. From something as silly as the Coke machine in the desert to the mysterious structure of “The Box”, each of these has a message behind their appearance. They aren’t just there to make this movie an simple psychedelic feild-trip like the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour made-for-TV movie the year before, but they pummel us with one political commentary right after the other. What also keeps this film grounded is its autobiographical elements, like the satirical concert, and its depiction of the struggle for creativity against a heavily-commercialized world.
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