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Review: Head

Star vehicles for musicians are hardly a rarity in Hollywood—after all, creatively bankrupt studio executives are perfectly willing to exploit pretty much any intellectual property that might be marketable, artistic integrity be damned—but even within that niche genre, Head stands out. Whereas A Hard Day’s Night (The Beatles) and True Stories (Talking Heads frontman David Byrne) are ultimately sincere and earnest despite their surface-level whimsy, the motion picture “adaptation”—more like antithesis!—of popular sitcom The Monkees is deeply cynical beneath its absurdist humor and psychedelic visuals, mercilessly deconstructing the superficiality of the entertainment industry, the elusive (and illusive) nature of the American Dream, and the manufactured public image of the band around which it revolves (exemplified by such sanitized, inoffensive lyrics as, “We’re too busy singing to put anybody down”).

The satire is as caustic as it is deliberately unsubtle. In an early scene, Micky Dolenz stumbles across a Coca-Cola vending machine in the middle of a barren desert—a condemnation of rampant commercialism and mindless consumerism that is subsequently reinforced by a rapidly edited montage of roadside billboard advertisements. Later, Peter Tork briefly breaks character mid-take to fret about how slapping a woman, even within the context of his work as an actor, might damage his reputation (“The kids won’t dig it, man!” he complains to the indifferent director)—lampooning the inherent egotism of celebrity. In the movie’s most scathing sequence, a concert is intercut with archival footage of the Vietnam War; as the performance ends, the frenzied audience storms the stage and literally tears the group apart—exposing them as nothing more than hollow mannequins. The medium itself can barely contain the filmmakers’ moral outrage: metafictional conflicts frequently disrupt the narrative; flashbacks within interludes within digressions overlap and interweave, making the “plot” borderline indecipherable. It can only be summarized in terms of its individual episodes and the loose thematic associations between them—which is akin to trying to explain a fever dream (or a drug-induced hallucination) to your pet cat.

Featuring cameo appearances by Jack Nicholson, Frank Zappa, and Timothy Carey and punctuated by stylistic flourishes that anticipate such cinematic classics as Raging Bull and Skyfall (no, seriously), Head is a fascinating countercultural artifact. Even amongst its New Wave contemporaries, it remains defiantly unconventional, incomprehensible, and unclassifiable; it must be experienced firsthand to be properly understood—though your mileage may vary in that regard.

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