After two seasons of their successful TV series, The Monkees took a different direction with their first (and only) feature film Head, released to the public on Nov. 6, 1968. From concept to execution, it was one of the weirder moments for a pop group of the era on film.
The members of the group - Peter Tork, Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz - were growing tired of the formulaic nature of the show. They survived the backlash of not playing all the instruments of their early albums, and were becoming respected as a pop band. But no one was quite prepared for what happened next.
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Working with series co-creators Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider as well as an unknown actor-writer named Jack Nicholson, the group devised a film that was almost the antithesis of their show - and intentionally so. "I vaguely remember a conversation about what we would want to do and not want to do,” Dolenz told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. "I remember the general consensus was that we don’t want to make a 90-minute episode of The Monkees."
Tork looked at the conception very differently. "Bert and Bob might have thought out loud: 'Let's kill the Monkees!'" he told The Guardian in 2011. "Or they may have not thought so out loud but at some unconscious level, they were sick of the Monkees and wanted to do something else." (In that same piece, Dolenz countered, "You'll get very different answers from [the others]. It's like Rashomon."
Instead, the film was nothing like the show, poking fun at film genres and took pointed shots at current events. An early scene, scored to the song "Ditty Diego - War Chant," lampoons the band's "hey-hey" TV theme and punctuates it with shocking footage of a Viet Cong member being executed by a general. Along the way, there's moments of pseudo-enlightenment, stream-of-consciousness gags and guest appearances by Frank Zappa, Annette Funicello, a then-unknown Teri Garr, boxer Sonny Liston and others.
Complementing all this unusual activity is the film's soundtrack, anchored by solid pop tunes written by songwriters who would enjoy success of their own in the years to come. "Porpoise Song," the movie's de facto theme and a minor pop hit, was penned by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, while "Daddy's Song," an upbeat number about child abandonment, was penned by a then-unknown Harry Nilsson. (Rafelson deemed "Porpoise Song" "far and away my favorite Monkees song.")
Significantly edited after an ill-received test screening and promoted by a bizarre, minimalist ad campaign that didn't mention The Monkees at all, Head was received with confusion by fans and critics alike. The New York Times haughtily suggested it "might be a film to see if you have been smoking grass." Within a year, Tork had exited the band, and the group split up in 1971, reuniting sporadically through the '80s, '90s, '00s and beyond after a new generation discovered the group through reruns of the series.
But Head remains an intriguing watch and listen for Monkees devotees. As one reviewer succinctly put it in a review of the soundtrack's expanded reissue in 2010, "it certainly illustrates just how far The Monkees had come from Clarksville."
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