I Saw A Film!
Love or hate the Monkees, the facts are that the music world is rife with stars performing other talented people’s efforts. You can get upset that studio musicians produced most of The Monkees’ music, but you better realize that that was true of Elvis and The Beach Boys as well as many other acts. And the reality is most of motown was created by suits in offices slapping songs onto pretty people to be the faces of the product. This was the music industry (and for at least part of the popular end of it, still is!). Actual bands, organic bands, that grew up together and launched dedicated and poverty stricken careers for themselves in dingy clubs night after night, until discovered, like the Stones and the Beatles were rarities, outliers competing for the dollars spent by kids on musical products. You could listen to Frankie and Annette, or you could be a grown up and love motown, but you’re still playing the same game and the game is one the Monkees got harpooned for because, well, they played it openly. Mike, Peter, Mickey, and Davey were talented folks, but they weren’t a band until they were put together by television studio smart-alecks to compete with the popularity of music movies like A Hard Days Night. It does not mean that our heroes had no compassion or soul. In the same manner it doesn’t mean Madonna isn’t worth her salt and that Steely Dan didn’t make brilliant records. Look, if you’re willing to love the Ronettes you really have nothing to complain about. OK I’m off my high horse.
I loved the Monkees, I was the right age for the Monkees, I was a wee kid. The Monkees were, to me, a model of pure joie de vivre. You live with your best friends, you support one another and have adventures together. You also, it just happens, work on music and play gigs so you can afford your strange single level apartment. I’ve really never wanted anything else but means of creative outputs and best friends. But the fantasy was bigger than I’d imagined.
Now it’s 1968 and the Monkees have been cancelled. We have a script written by Jack Nicholson and the director from the Monkees, the film now, however, isn’t the goofball series in which Davey falls in love with an imperiled princess and they must rescue her through music and formulaic slapstick, instead it’s a collection of vignettes and anti-pop musical interludes that take our beloved Monkees through a kaleidoscope of sixties market culture. Is it heavy-handed? You bet. Is it visually arresting? Yup. Did I understand it all? Nope. Does Frank Zappa make a cameo? He sure does.
It’s a little like the Laugh-In episode most of the Monkees showed up on (season 3 I think). Our clean-cut boys are having to scramble and rhyme their way through a bunch of weird events culminating in a giant Victor Mature’s hair-do. Critics hated it. But of course they’d already dismissed The Monkees as too twee for serious consideration (entirely missing the point). Granted the thing is silly, westerns and brawls, war and factory settings, the boys are mostly just wandering through it all with a kind of intention of escaping the bounds of the product they are meant to represent. And, perhaps, bashing their artistic desires against the walls of their cage.
Making a common film with a plot or emotionalism isn’t the point here, the point is that this thing is an artifact (art-y-fact) of a period when people were really still just grasping at the idea that all those Elvis films were actually shiite, and Elvis himself was getting ready to relaunch a performance career. It was a time when LBJ having escalated a war, and was sinking out of a world of protest and anti-war demonstration was about to be replaced with Nixon who campaigned on law and order. The counter-culture was about to be a fully blossomed entity that earned respect instead of just police beatings. And the Monkees were pulling back the curtain on entertainment and popular product creation to rub our noses in absurdity and push our collective ability to grasp the Wizard of Oz-like farce into a more open playing field. No the Monkees wouldn’t do this by themselves, but neither would Lennon and Ono. And neither would Warhol.
So watch this unusual film with a mind to a world gone by in which naivete was a condition we had to be lifted from. You’ll find it on Youtube, but for some reason not many other outlets, I bought a DVD. Even the old Monkees show is hard to come by.