Sunday, March 7, 2010

On Tour and in Your Head

We polished off the last disc of the Monkees first season: The Monkees: Season 1: Disc 6. It only had 2 episodes: Monkees at the Movies and Monkees on Tour. We were upset at first, thinking these were recent vintage documentary-type blather, ut no, they were regularly aired episodes.

But On Tour was far from regular. The Monkee's had been touring since early in the first season, and getting Beatles-worthy response - with huge crowds of screaming girls. So director Bob Rafelson decided to make a tour documentary and air it as the last episode of the first season.

It is very verite, with handheld cameras and Monkees "improvising schtick" (quote from Peter Tork's commentary track) in hotel rooms. We also see them in contemplative moods, talking about their views on the crazy rock 'n' roll life they were living (Tork called them "phony").

Through the episode, as well as Tork, Nesmith and (songwriter) Bobby Hart's comentary, ran the question of the Monkees credibility as a "real" group. The tour proved they could play their own instruments (although Boyce and Hart's band helped out a lot). But reading between the lines in the commentary, I think that Peter felt they could be a real band - he was a talented multi-instrumentalist who was kind of stuck on bass. In concert, he gets to a solo banjo, frailing a nifty "Cripple Creek". Nesmith, more songwriter than guitarist, seemed to think that they were a TV show first, not really a musical group. Funny, most people think of him as the serious one.

Philosophical differences, personality clashes, and the strain of working under the thumb of the Man in the freethinking 60's must have been tough on all involved. Rafelson, who had been a dutiful company man for three seasons, wanted payback when the show was over. He got it in the form of a formless movie, Head.

Head starts with the Monkees running headlong across a newly opened bridge and jumping off into the Pacific off Long Beach, to the accompaniment of the Goffin-King composition "Porpoise Song". This is an immediate subversion of the usual Monkees "romps", musical interludes with the Monkees mugging and clowning - in this romp, they seem to be running in fear of their lives, then killing themselves.

We cut to a short patter song manifesto ("Ditty Diego"), describing the present movie as manufactured to please the crowd, meaningless, without form or end. And then it's off to the races, with scraps of war movie, western, commercial and who knows what. And just when it's getting good, a Monkee will decide they don't want to do it anymore, walk off the set and behind the scene to talk to Rafelson about their problems. In one scene, co-writer Jack Nicholson comes along in a heinous white cloth cap and sports shirt with a clipboard, probably to figure out the script.

We also get Frank Zappa, leading a cow, telling Davey to work more on his music, because the youth are counting on him. We get a giant Victor Mature trying to stomp the boys. We get to see Sonny Liston beat the stuffing out of Davey. And we find out who the dummy is (it's Peter. He's always the dummy). Terri Garr dies of snakebite. Annete Funicello sheds a glycerin tear. Tor Johnson plays a security guard extra. And it all ends as it began.

A few reasons why I love this movie:
  • The songs - not the Monkees' best (I like their Boyce and Hart garage classics), but some interesting pop-psychedelia like "Porpoise Song" and Tork's "Can You Dig It?" and "Long Title (Do I Have to Do It All Over Again)".
  • The surrealistic formlessness of it all, jumping from chase to dream sequence to dance number to back lot, to a steamroom, to ...., and holding your interest the whole way.
  • The movie's love for the Monkee's characters, even as it subverts them.
    • Davey is the performer, a song and dance man, a little guy who thinks he can take out Sonny Liston.
    • Mickey is a wiseguy, frustrated and itching to break out of the role.
    • Mike is the serious one, coming across cold and cruel in Head.
    • Peter (my favorite Monkee) is the wise dummy, caring and nonviolent even when he punches a lady.
And were they a real rock group? Hey, not every group wrote all their own songs, and even the Beatles had studio musicians fill in (sometimes the same ones the Monkees used). My opinion, they were if they wanted to be.

Who was your favorite Monkee?


mr. schprock said...

I think I liked Mickey the best. I wonder, was there ever a Pete Best, an original Monkee who got replaced for someone who suited the band better? Maybe it was Richard Nixon, who got back at everyone by becoming president.

Karin said...

My favorite Monkee is Peter in the TV show but Mike in the movie. On TV I love Peter's gentleness, innocence and general naivete. He was like a force of nature. But his Head commentary sounds pretty cynical. In contrast Mike's commentary just called it exactly what it was: a pre-fab TV show band that began to evolve into something different. He didn't pretend they were an existing band that suddenly landed a tv show. I always prefer what sounds like the real deal, rather than some retroactive attempt to re-spin things.

Winslow said...

The hat. It was all about the hat. So there really isn't any question, is there?