Monday, June 04, 2007

New, Improved Instant Karma

I was on a sixties jag this weekend. It started Friday night when TCM ran HEAD as part of its UNDERGROUND series.

HEAD, you probably know, was the Monkees vehicle. Columbia threw some money at Bob Rafaelson to crank out a spinoff picture. The movie industry was in a complete shambles then, and there was even less predicting the market than usual, hence the desire to turn hit TV shows into movies. At the same time, the Monkees themselves were becoming radicalized, irritated that they were thought to be talentless actors instead of real musicians, so they were looking for street cred.

The resulting movie is a plotless psychadelic mess, but one of the great ones. Where the TV show was anarchic but harmless, the movie is disturbing. It opens with the Monkees crashing a bridge ribbon-cutting ceremony chased by Indians, Cops, and assorted others, and Mickey jumps over the side of the bridge, comitting symbolic career suicide. They keep up the nervy assault on their own careers throughout with flash-cuts to Mai Lai massacre footage, atomic bombs exploding, and a running meme about them being trapped in a box. Artistic restraint? Television itself?

The darkness undercuts that wacky Monkees humor, and the humor undercuts the message, if there is one. Like I say, a mess. Still good cameos from a gigantic Victor Mature (about 30 feet tall, in a golfing ensemble), Frank Zappa, Annette Funicello; some decent music, and four skinny, appealing lads who now all hate each other.

The movie was released about 4 months after the show was cancelled. A little market research birdie told Columbia that nobody wanted to see this movie; most of the promotional material failed to mention the pre-fab four at all. Rafaelson and co-writer Jack Nicholson went on to turn out a little movie called FIVE EASY PIECES and the industry thus took its first tremulous steps back out of the wilderness. HEAD grossed in the mid-five-figures.

Hungry for more summer of love fun, I spent time listening to THE TECHNICOLOR WEB OF SOUND, an internet radio station that specializes in 1967-1971 - the music and the ads. It's dated but fresh because they play obscurities aplenty. They have the entire Carrie Nations catalog in rotation - that's the group from BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, and they're better than you'd think. The music of that era was ballsy, experimental and muscular. They didn't care what it sounded like as long as it didn't sound like something from 1965. The late seventies-early eighties had a similar vibe, and then the grunge movement had the same idea only that mostly sounded like the psychadelic era without the expanded mind aspects.

TechWebSound also plays commercials that many of the artists may wish had never been uncovered. "Jefferson Airplane for Levi Stretch Jeans!" is one of them. The Moody Blues performed several jingles for Coke. Actually, EVERYBODY worked for Coke at some point, which to me suggests that Coke has its tentacles in deeper than I've ever imagined. It's fascinating to hear advertising adapting to psychadelia and turning the love generation's ideals to its own ends.

For the record, I was around seven years old when this stuff was big, so my nostalgia for it must be wired directly to the primitive lizard part of my brain. I should be nostalgic for the mid-seventies, because that's when I first had sex. But man, the seventies? I spent a whole decade trying to escape that.


Anonymous said...

Rafelson put all the Monkee-money he made into the movie Easy Rider, which Nicholson was in, btw....and then came 5 Easy Pieces.

Danielk said...

Point well taken. Incidentally I think I read on IMDB that Nicholson AND Fonda turn up in a crowd scene at a diner in HEAD, though I only spotted Nicholson.

(Bonus Nicholson gag, courtesy Sarah Silverman at the MTV Music Awards: "Oh my God, Jack Nichsolson! You don't understand, you've been in all my favorite actresses.")