In 1968, The Monkees tried to shed their goofy TV image by starring in the movie 'Head' - a psychedelic comedy that's like 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' meets 'Easy Rider'. The film - which was co-written by Jack Nicholson and directed by Monkees co-creator Bob Rafelson - has since gained a cult following, but film critics and fans still debate whether or not The Monkees' 'Head' was any good.
When it was first released, most critics either reviled the film for The Monkees' involvement, or they dismissed the plotless, meandering story as a vapid stoner movie. Renata Adler and Vincent Canby of The New York Times capture both responses in their 1968 review.
"'HEAD'...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 hysteric high-school girls," they wrote. "Dreadfully written by Jack Nicholson...and directed by Bob Rafelson...the movie is, nonetheless, of a certain fascination in its joining of two styles: pot and advertising. The special effects - playing with perspective, focus, dimension, interstices, symmetry, color, logic, pace - are most accessible to marijuana."
So if nothing else, 'Head' might be the ultimate 60's stoner movie. The film's trailer certainly makes the case for that argument.
But the film was supposed to be much more than that. According to Rafelson -- who later directed hits like 'Five Easy Pieces' - 'Head' was a deconstruction of The Monkees and pop culture as a whole. In 1994, he shared his artistic vision for the piece in the liner notes for the re-release of the soundtrack, which featured 'Porpoise Song' - a track penned for the Monkees by singer/songwriter Carole King.
"That song was critical to me," he wrote before analyzing the lyrics. "'A face, a voice, an overdub has no choice.' In other words, the whole synthetic process of making The Monkees' records was about to be [examined] in the movie. They are constantly being picked up, used, transplanted, subjected to influence by the [guru], by the war, by the media, and all of these things are exposed. They are always [portrayed] as the victims of their own fame. That's what I chose to make the movie about."
Monkees drummer Mickey Dolenz later backed Rafelson's interpretation. "It ['Head'] wasn't so much about the deconstruction of the Monkees, but it was using the deconstruction of the Monkees as metaphor for the deconstruction of the Hollywood film industry," Dolenz said.
So there was a lot more to the film than trippy lights, distorted music and non-sequitur jokes - like Frank Zappa and his talking cow giving Davy Jones career advice.
But does that mean the movie was any good? The answer depends on which film critics you trust. In 1971, Roger Ebert gave the film 2.5 stars out of 4 and said, "The film's success is in a series of satires on movie clichés, and in several blackouts. These are probably Nicholson's, and worth seeing." He also weighed in on why the film didn't catch on when it was first released. "I suppose it flopped in 1968 because Monkees fans were offended by it, and non-Monkees fans (i.e., anyone over 14, in either age or IQ) devoutly stayed away."
In the 2015 edition of Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, the film critic and historian called 'Head' "delightfully plotless" and "well worth seeing."
Rotten Tomatoes gave 'Head' a 60 percent fresh rating based on 5 reviews from top critics. That is the very lowest score that a fresh film can get though, so reviewers are still on the fence about the film.
If you want to decide for yourself, you can pick up a restored version of the movie as part of a Criterion Collection box set that includes 'Easy Rider,' 'Five Easy Pieces' and four other movies from the New Hollywood era of American cinema.
And if you don't want to watch the full film, at least give its theme song a listen. 'Porpoise Song' arguably has greater depth -- both lyrically and musically -- than any other Monkees song. It took 20 musicians to record all the instruments for the Monkees' musical epitaph, which features the sounds of actual porpoises and distorted vocals sung by Mickey Dolenz, who turns 72 today.