The Monkees’s “Head”: “the most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made…”

By on November 7, 2015

Approximately forty-seven years ago, as the Monkees’s cinematic film Head was making its first theatrical appearance— the gala premiere was held on Wednesday, November 6, 1968, at the Columbia Pictures Studio on West 54th Street in Manhattan — the band were at a crossroads, and probably a little uncertain about their future.

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Earlier in the year, in March, they’d released their last Top Ten single, “Valleri,” and completed the second season of their prime-time NBC TV show, “The Monkees,” but they weren’t happy with the show and everyone involved decided that they were going down the wrong track. They met with network execs in an attempt to convince them to let them change the show from a zany sitcom to a variety program.

NBC wasn’t convinced, however, and with that, “The Monkees” was cancelled, and dropped from the network’s fall schedule; in September, “I Dream Of Jeannie” would inherit their former time-slot (Monday nights, 7:30 ET).

At the time, the band were busy working on their film debut anyway (they were more than a month into the production of Head, which originally had the working title Changes, no doubt a reflection of what exactly the band were going through at the time).

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The origin of the screenplay had originally been started during a weekend at an Ojai, California, golf resort. Joining all four four members of the band — Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork — were producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, who also brought along their friend who they had tasked as screenwriter for the film, a then-struggling B-movie actor named Jack Nicholson, not exactly a household name in 1968.

Apparently it was quite a wild weekend, and everyone present is said to have smoked copious amounts of marijuana and possibly done other recreational drugs, randomly spewing their ideas in a kind of rambling collective stream of consciousness rant about what a Monkees film should be.

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And so what is Head? Well, it’s not easy to sum up, but let’s say that it’s certainly an acidic social commentary about the band’s own commercial superficiality, presented while the band takes a kind of unimaginably weird trip of rapidly-edited series sequences in the kinds of genre-movies that you might have seen on late night TV at the time: there are war scenes, adventure scenes, horror scenes, comedy scenes, drama scenes, western scenes, sci-fi scenes, romance scenes, and on and on.

Except, in Head‘s filmic reality, as this is a poke at the band’s fake image, this all turns out to be happening primarily (if not exclusively) on a studio backlot, essentially letting us know that all entertainment is, in some way, fake.

But Head is even more than that — it’s also a social commentary on just about everything the counterculture was concerned with at the time: things like corporations taking over the manufacture of nearly everything, police brutality, the invasion of privacy and personal space, drug use, the use of war and death and tragedy for TV ratings, and especially big media’s manipulation of the truth and its net result: deception.

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In one of the film’s memorable sequence in the desert, a large Coca-Cola vending machine materializes in the desert like one of Stanley Kubrick’s monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey (released on April 3, 1968, while Head was still in production). Few probably knew that this was meant to be a symbolic nod to French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, who once called the youth generation of the sixties “the children of Marx and Coca Cola,” and when Micky Dolenz blows it up after it has taken his last coin, it’s supposed to be about mindless consumerism.

The Coca-Cola Company reportedly wasn’t amused at the fact that the Monkees’ used an uncooperative soda machine to make this point, and apparently tried to get an injunction against the movie, but since the film disappeared rather quickly after its release, they probably dropped the idea (and certainly after Head started showing on cable and home video in 1986, when Columbia Pictures was owned by Coca-Cola, the scene no longer meant what it had originally).

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Nicholson later took these tapes of the band’s Ojai writing session and the producers riffing while higher than kites and, according to Rafelson, then structured them into a screenplay while under the influence of LSD. At least twenty-five different of these story ideas were interwoven together, which can possibly be summed up with the recollection of one of the film’s great tossed-off lines: “The tragedy of your times, my young friends, is that you may get exactly what you want.”

Since all involved — particularly the band — wanted to make a film and destroy the public’s conception of how the Monkees were seen by their adoring fans, that’s exactly what happened, of course — the band got exactly what they wanted, a film that would comprehensively demolish the group’s carefully-groomed iconic TV-genic public image.

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Nevertheless, none of the parties involved knew how their audience was going to react at the time. The proceeded as though they were going to make a movie that would stand the test of time.

They scraped together a miniscule budget (just $750,000) and set about prepping the film, but immediate problems arose just before the first day of filming (some sources say it happened February 11, 1968, other says February 15th) at Columbia Pictures/Screen Gems studio in Culver City, California, when the band learned they were going to have very little creative input into the film from that point on, and additionally they would not share in the screenwriting credits, despite contributing during the Ojai writing session/drug binge.

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Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith decided to go on strike rather than show up for the first day of production — only Peter Tork showed up for work — until an new financial deal was made over the next few days, the studio agreeing to give the group a larger percentage share of the film’s net profits.

When all four returned to the studio on February 16th, feeling they’d made their point with producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, it’s been reported that the relationship between the band and their producers was damaged, and indeed, Head would effectively end their professional relationship together.

It didn’t help that during the production of the film, Rafelson and Schneider pointed out to the band just what they thought of the Monkees’s music by playing albums by other bands, including The Electric Flag, and then claiming aloud, in an attempt to hurt some feelings, “That’s REAL rock-n-roll.”

It’s also interesting to note that during the film, often only three of the four Monkees would be seen together, with the fourth just outside of camera lens or out of the scene altogether. This was apparently done on purpose, and a reference to the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” pictorial maxim, known as Three Wise Monkeys (sometimes Three Mystic Apes), although it’s not clear who’s idea it was.

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The principal photography took place in many locations over a three-month period, during ten full days of shooting between February 16th and May 17, 1968. In addition to filming done at Screen Gems Studio 7 in Culver City, some of the interior studio shots were done at the Columbia Ranch in Burbank, and Nesmith’s birthday party sequence was shot at Paramount Studios, on a set from Rosemary’s Baby (also released in 1968). That particular sequence featured one hundred extras and pop artist Edward Kienholz, whose 1964 sculpture “Back Seat Dodge ’38” was featured on set.

Somewhat curiously, Nesmith shares his real birthday — December 30th — with bandmate Davy Jones, whose song-and-dance number “Daddy’s Song” (filmed on Monday, April 8, 1968) is said to have been a tribute to the late film director Vincente Minnelli.

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Most of the exterior filming locations were in Southern California locations: the opening sequence — a ribbon cutting ceremony, was shot on Gerald Desmond Bridge in Long Beach, on Wednesday, April 17, 1968 (the 34th birthday of former Monkees music supervisor Don Kirshner); The war chant cheerleader sequence was filmed at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena; the war trench sequence at Bronson Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles; the desert sequence was mostly shot in Palm Springs, on the same location as the chase climax in It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), although some shots were also done in Utah (a concert sequence was filmed at the Valley Music Hall in Salt Lake City); and, factory sequences were all filmed at the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant on February 28, 1968. Other scenes from Head were shot in Playa Del Ray, and San Francisco. Micky Dolenz’s underwater ballet sequence, where he’s rescued by the mermaids, was filmed in the Bahamas, and then intercut with footage of the band shot in a swimming pool.

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Speaking of Dolenz, the gold football helmet he wears in the war trench sequence belonged to former pro football player Ray Nitschke, who made one of the many memorable cameo appearances in the film which today make seeing Head so much fun. Many will recall the memorable scene with Frank Zappa, leading a cow through the set, particularly because Zappa tells Davy Jones he’s “pretty white,” and that he should concentrate more on his music than his dancing, and the cow says “Monkeys is the cwaziest peoples” (the cow’s line was actually the catchphrase of radio comedian Lew Lehr, who no one remembers today).

Zappa’s role is credited as “The Critic,” and he had already appeared as “Mike Nesmith” in the teaser of Episode No. 57, “The Monkees Blow Their Minds.”

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Other celebrities who made cameo appearances include actress/singer Annette Funicello; heavyweight boxing legend Sonny Liston (the former heavyweight champ was dethroned in 1964 by then Cassius Clay Jr., known today as Muhammad Ali); actress Terri Garr; Carol Doda (the first topless dancer at The Condor on the Sunset Strip was called “Sally Silicone”); dancer/actress/choreographer Toni Basil; actress Mireille Machu (the girl who kisses all four Monkees near the start of the film, she was co-writer Jack Nicholson girlfriend at the time); and legendary veteran Hollywood actors Timothy Carey, and Victor Mature, who agreed to appear in the movie after reading the script, admitting none of it made sense to him: “All I know is it makes me laugh.” His character “The Big Victor” is presumed to be a comic jab at RCA/Victor Records, which was the distributors for The Monkees’s recordings at the time (they also owned NBC, the network that aired their now-cancelled TV series).

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Quite a few other actors who had appeared in episodes of “The Monkees” were brought back for appearances in Head, including Vito Scotti (“I. Vitteloni” in the movie and Dr. Marcovich in Episode No. 17, “The Case Of The Missing Monkee”), William Baghdad (“The Black Sheik” in the movie and Curad in Episode No. 35, “Everywhere A Sheik Sheik”), Lee Kolima (the security guard in the movie that many believe to be Tor Johnson and Yakimoto in Episode No. 5, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cool”, and “Atilla The Hun” in No. 52, “The Devil And Peter Tork”). The late Abraham Sofaer, a true Swami, provided the Melkotian voice in the October 25, 1968 episode of “Star Trek” (NBC, 1966-69), titled “Spectre Of The Gun,” which also guest-starred Monkee guest alumnus Rex Holman (“The Monkees In Texas”).

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The movie also features principals Rafelson (the film’s director) and co-screenwriter Nicholson, and their friends, Jon Andersen, and Dennis Hopper, in interesting cameos during the Columbia-Screen Gems Studio Club café sequence; another cameo includes Helena Kallianiotes (as a belly dancer in the “Can You Dig It” number; she would go on to star as Palm Apodaca in Five Easy Pieces (1970]), another Bob Rafelson-Jack Nicholson film.

Nicholson and Hopper would, of course, later be featured in Easy Rider (1969), which was executive-produced by Head‘s executive producer Bert Schneider, and also featured Head choreographer Toni Basil in an acting role during the film’s New Orleans sequences.

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Not entirely sure how audiences would respond to their film, the original 110-minute director’s cut of Head was presented to a test audience in Los Angeles, in August 1968, while the filmmakers were still assembling it, but apparently this early response was not good, as the film was frantically edited down to its final 86-minute release length.

It was the film’s editing, in fact, that ended up playing a significant part in how the film was ultimately received. As this was 1968, there was a lot of nods to directors like Godard and Andy Warhol (particularly Warhol’s framing and editing techniques), but this would have gone over the heads of most filmgoers at the time, certainly those expecting a movie like the Monkees’s TV show.

There were scenes that you’d expect to see in art films: extensive negative imagery, fast cuts (including a great sequence that features Davy Jones and Tony Basil dancing alternately in a white and a black room, wearing a combination of white and black reversed in each, that occasionally toggles back and forth as quickly as two frames at a time).

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There were also clips inserted and interspersed through Head from other films, including, chronologically listed from the time of their own theatrical release: The Black Cat (1934), Golden Boy (1939), City of Conquest (1940), Jam Session (“You make motion pictures here, don’t you? Watch this!”) (1944), Gilda (1946), and Salome (1953). A brief snippet of the Hanna-Barbera “Loopy DeLoop” cartoon “Two Faced Wolf,” released April 6, 1961 by Columbia Pictures, can also be seen.

Not all of the footage was from movies. The Vietnam War footage — later reused in Bert Schneider’s Oscar-winning documentary Hearts And Minds (1974) — apparently bothered many, according to film writer J. Hoberman, in his essay for the Criterion Collection release:

“Adding to the assault, everything was tricked out with a panoply of gimmicky effects and interspersed with used-car spots, cartoon clips, and, most outrageously, newsreel footage of the Vietnam War. The repeated use of the notorious image of a VC captive being executed by Saigon’s chief of police struck some viewers as particularly egregious.”

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Also inserted into the film was a clip featuring John Brockman, and The Rockettes. Indeed, it’s Brockman — who created Head‘s promotional campaign — and his actual head that was used for the infamous Head ad campaign upon the film’s 1968 release. He can be seen in the movie exactly 78-minutes into the film, in much the same pose as seen in the ads, but it’s the TV commercial that everyone remembers In it, the balding Brockman smiling after :30 seconds and then the name of the film, Head, appearing on his forehead.

It was quite unique at the time, it must be pointed out, that the poster and ad campaign didn’t feature any photos or images of the Monkees themselves. Few probably knew that this TV ad was a parody of Andy Warhol’s 1963 film Blow Job, which only showed a close-up of a man’s face for an extended period, while he was supposedly receiving “head.” (There have been rumors that the Monkees changed the title from Changes to Head in the event a a sequel was made, as the advertisements would supposedly have read: “From the people who gave you Head”).

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Columbia Pictures’s theatrical trailer didn’t provide much of a clue as to the film the Monkees were going to give their fans either, showing the “Ditty Diego” sequence as a narrator says: …the most extraordinary adventure, western, comedy, love story, mystery, drama, musical, documentary satire ever made…and that’s putting it mildly.”

Apparently the film’s release was delayed in part because of the post-production use of solarization — which was a then-new technique, laborious and expensive — in the sequence at the top of the film, but when the film was screened for that New York audience on November 6th, no one quite knew what to make of Head (attending the official premiere were all four of the Monkees, producers Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, along with Janis Ian, Andy Warhol, songwriters Boyce & Hart, Carole Bayer, Lester Sill, Peter Fonda, Peter Tork’s brother Nick Thorkelson, and his grandmother).

On Tuesday, November 19, 1968, a west coast premiere of the film took place at the Vogue Theater on Hollywood Blvd., where the film was seen attended by for an invitation-only crowd that included all four of the Monkees and their wives and girlfriends (including Phyllis Nesmith, and Samantha Juste), as well as Cass Elliot and Denny Doherty (of The Mamas And The Papas), Boyce & Hart, Dennis Hopper, actor Sonny Tufts, comedy troupe The Committee, Tina Louise, and supporting Head cast members Frank Zappa, Sonny Liston and Annette Funicello.

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When the film opened to more theaters, the film’s initial box office failure reflected just how confused fans were with the film itself, garnering only a miserably embarrassing $16,111 in ticket sales.

At the time, film critics were particularly harsh, especially in New York. Renata Adler, in a scathing review of Head for The New York Times, said it “might be a film to see if you have been smoking grass, or if you like to scream at The Monkees, or if you are interested in what interests drifting heads and hysterical high-school girls.” She added that the group “are most interesting for their lack of similarity to The Beatles. Going through ersatz Beatle songs, and jokes and motions, their complete lack of distinction of any kind…makes their performance modest and almost brave.”

Pauline Kael, the acclaimed film critic for The New Yorker, briefly reviewed what portion of the film she saw, but admitted in print that she walked out after about an hour. “The movie might have worked for bored kids at kiddie matinees, but the filmmakers got ambitious… the by-now standard stuff of girls squealing as pop idols perform is not even convincing when they’re squealing for the Monkees, and when this is intercut with documentary footage of the suffering and horror of war, as if to comment on the shallowness of what the filmmakers are manufacturing and packaging and desperately trying to sell, the doubling up of greed and pretentions to depth is enough to make even a pinhead walk out.”

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Daily Variety‘s review was also harsh, stating thatHead is an extension of the ridiculous nonsense served up on the Screen Gems that manufactured The Monkees and lasted two full seasons following the same format and, ostensibly, appealing to the same kind of audience.”

The review applauded Rafelson and Nicholson, though, saying that they “were wise not to attempt a firm storyline as The Monkees have established themselves in the art of the non-sequitur and outrageous action. Giving them material they can handle is good thinking; asking them to achieve something more might have been a disaster.”

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More recently, the film was panned by our very own Night Flight contributor Chris Morris, who called it a “a very bad, self-indulgent, and unwatchable motion picture,” adding that people “tend to romanticize and worship elements of ’60s culture I find dull, masturbatory, and stupid. Head, with its self-referencing smugness, is one such artifact.

I’m sure some find it spectacular and ‘post-modern'; I find it dishonest and labored. Unlike many, I had to live through the ’60s, and I get pretty bent out of shape when people loft the decade’s excrescences to iconic heights. And people continue to revere certain vacuous cultural artifacts of the era without any incisive consideration of their true worth.”

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It’s interesting to look back to how the band themselves had talked about the film. “We thought that this was the beginning of our film career,” said Mike Nesmith in 1989, “and that this was really going to be a tremendous hit movie. Boy, did we get that one wrong.” (source: Total Control: The Monkees Michael Nesmith Story).

It’s also interesting to note that at the time of the film’s release Nesmith was facing charges after having been arrested in Beverly Hills, for defacing the American Flag. Apparently, while on tour in Australia, Nesmith was surprised when some crowds shouted jeering calls at the Monkees in protest to America’s involvement in the Vietnam war.

According to a mention of the arrest in NME (November 2, 1968): “Mike, too, is unhappy at what’s happening in Vietnam but he’s still proud to be an American and wasn’t afraid to broadcast the fact by wearing a shirt made from the national flag. And then what happens, but he gets busted. While the British have popularized their flag and spread British patriotism on everything from amplifiers to tea mugs, it seems in California it’s against the law to deface the American flag by making it into a shirt.”

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When asked by Rolling Stone magazine in March 2012 if he thought making Head was a mistake, Nesmith responded by saying that “by the time Head came out the Monkees were a pariah. There was no confusion about this. We were on the cosine of the line of approbation, from acceptance to rejection… and it was basically over. Head was a swan song.”

“Most of our fans couldn’t get in because there was an age restriction, and the intelligentsia wouldn’t go to see it anyway because they hated the Monkees,” Micky Dolenz was quoted in 2011 in the Guardian UK, an excellent look back at the film from just a few years ago.

Davy Jones said about it in the same interview, “We were pawns in something we helped create but had no control over. We should have made Ghostbusters, OK?,” but when he had been interviewed in Australia in 1968, he was decidedly more upbeat:

“It’s just about four ordinary people – and we play ourselves for the first time ever – our true personalities come over. We have four different ways of getting out of the clutches of society, out of the clutches of Establishment. My way is to fight my way out ‘cos I’m a fighter. Micky, he says ‘whatever’ ‘cos he’ll go along with anything. Mike, he cons his way out, and Peter, he loves his way out, you know, he’s for love and peace like we all are, but Peter’s a little bit more extreme than we are about it. And that’s just four different ways of trying to get out.”

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Peter Tork, in the 2011 Guardian article, said: “The movie dropped like a ball of dark star. The simile of a rock in the water is too mild for how badly that movie did.”

The film was released a second time at Columbia’s Showcase Presentation Theatres — on December 13, 1968 — just a few weeks after its initial poorly-attended screenings, this time with a new ad campaign and, in an attempt to boost ticket sales, it was double-billed with the 1967 Columbia melodrama The Love-Ins, but this second run would last no longer than four additional days.

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The writer of this piece still vividly remembers the first time he saw Head, when a babysitter taking him to see the film on a Saturday matinee double-bill with the Beatles’s Yellow Submarine at the Brookhurst Theater in Anaheim (both films had premiered in November of 1968, and were frequently shown together) and his recollection was that, even though his little 8-year old mind was probably irreparably and permanently damaged in some way, he loved the opening solarized sequence so much that he continued to think it was the greatest movie ever until he was old enough to see really great movies (it’s a great film to show your innocent 8-year old kids if you’d like to replicate that experience).

It’s fun to now see that it actually says “Not Suitable for Children” on one of the re-release posters.

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In the weekend following Head‘s west coast premiere, the Monkees went to MGM Studios in Culver City to begin work on what would eventually become Peter Tork’s final project with the band: the TV special “33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee” (Tork officially resigned from the Monkees on December 30, 1968).

According to a Wikipedia entry for the film, Head‍‘s “abysmal reception instantly halted studio plans for any further films with the Monkees. It also corresponded with a steep drop in the group’s popularity as recording artists; the Head soundtrack peaked at No. 45 on the U.S. chart, the first time any Monkees album had not risen to the Top 5.”

“Porpoise Song (Theme From Head),” which was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, was also the first Monkees single to not make the Top 40 (it was released as a rather unsuccessful Colgems #66-1031 single on October 5, 1968, the band’s eighth and last single as a quartet), almost a full month prior to the premiere of Head in New York City and two months prior to the soundtrack LP release.

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Over the years, the initially mediocre reviews have been replaced with with generally positive ones with it attaining cult status among some film lovers, but much of the love anyone has for the movie has to be credited a least partially to the film’s great soundtrack, which is now considered some of the best and most sophisticated material recorded during the Monkees’s short-lived early career, including the aforementioned “Porpoise Song,” “Daddy’s Song,” written by Harry Nilsson, “Circle Sky,” by Michael Nesmith and “Long Title: Do I Have to Do This All Over Again?,” by Peter Tork.

There have been numerous LP and CD reissues over the years, including Rhino’s 1985 reissue of Head‘s soundtrack, and the 1994 CD reissue, which features both the studio and live versions of “Circle Sky,” and an early demo recording of Bob Rafelson and Jack Nicholson’s “Ditty Diego” (a.k.a. “Movie Jingle”).

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It should also be mentioned somewhere that the incidental music cues (recorded at Goldwyn Studios in Los Angeles on Wednesday, October 2, 1968) were by composer/conductor Ken Thorne, who had been the musical director for The Beatles’ second film, Help! (1965).

There are, in fact, numerous little mentions and hints that the band make about the Fab Four throughout the film, like when Tork can be heard whisting the chorus to the Beatles’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” while entering a restroom.

CBS aired the broadcast premiere of Head on Monday, December 30, 1974, at 11:30pm ET as a “CBS Late Movie” (it was Michael Nesmith’s 32nd birthday, and David Jones’ 29th), with two promos, the second of which claimed: “On The CBS Late Movie, The Monkees get it all together in a film that’s out of this world. Take off on a non-stop trip of hilarity and song with 4 young men who don’t know where they’re going. The Monkees are on the move in Head.” (Most people were probably watching “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson”).

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Head has been released multiple times and on multiple formats for home viewing — on VHS (1986, and 1995), Beta, Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-Ray (2000, 2010) — and completely unrelated but nonetheless interesting, January 2016 will see the release of the The Monkees – Complete TV Series Blu-ray.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Patrick Clayton Working

    Thank you for this extensive look at an interesting piece of film history.

  • Marc Edward Heuck

    You neglected to mention the participation of the late June Fairchild, who not only had multiple roles in HEAD – as one of the “Can You Dig It” dancers, and “The Jumper” – but also previously appeared on the series in the “Monkee Chaperone” episode, having a conversation with puppet Mr. Schneider. June appeared in another BBS production, Jack Nicholson’s directorial outing DRIVE HE SAID. She also helped name the band Three Dog Night during her coupling with band singer Danny Hutton, and of course was immortalized as “The Ajax Lady” in Cheech & Chong’s UP IN SMOKE.

  • susras

    This move was surprisingly GREAT!!!! I LOVED it!!!!! So trippy and funny. Can’t say enough good about it!!