‘Head’, or how the Monkees blew themselves up

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It took me a little while to warm up to The Monkees. 

They were the pre-fab, ‘reality TV’ Beatles, or so I thought. But eventually, I cottoned on to their easygoing talents, the goofy charms of the TV show, and some of the most ingratiating pop nuggets of all time. 

I’ve seen what’s left of The Monkees twice in the past few years – in 2016, Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork did a terrific Monkees revue here in Auckland, and last weekend, Dolenz and the only other surviving Monkee Mike Nesmith took one last turn through town for another nostalgic blast. (Peter Tork died this past February, sadly.) The 2019 show was good fun, although hampered by muddy sound and the ageing limitations of the surviving band (the 2016 show was a lot more energetic, to be honest). I was still really glad to see Nesmith, 76, who’s been in ailing health, because he’s one of the great unsung songwriters of our time. 

movie-poster-for-the-film-head-starring-the-monkeesI’ve seen three of the Monkees live now, and I’m happy to have done so. But there was one last Monkee fan hurdle for me to cross: Their mysterious, controversial 1968 movie “Head,” which is either their finest moment or their nadir, depending on who you ask. 

I’d never seen it until this week. I expected a dated hippie mess. I had no idea it was a dazzling comic horror movie that would fill me with existential dread. 

“Head” is a strange, groundbreaking film that assumes you know who the madcap Monkees are, and then proceeds to tear the ground out from under you. There’s not much of a plot – the movie apes the surreal skit humour of the TV series, but with a jarringly nasty edge. You know you’re not in kiddieville anymore when a song featuring shots of screaming female fans cross-cuts into the infamous images from the execution of a Viet Cong officer – it’s like a Backstreet Boys video suddenly morphing into a Marilyn Manson joint. 

I’ve generally a low tolerance for psychedelic storytelling, which tends to really only work if you’re stoned yourself, but the Jack Nicholson script (yes – THAT Jack Nicholson) to “Head” never gets too completely up its own navel to become incoherent. Despite its scattershot approach, “Head” is about a fictional famous band who are trapped on a treadmill of fame in a world they can’t escape. “Head” frequently breaks the fourth wall to show the sets and cameras the Monkees are forced to perform on, but it never gives us the possibility of escape. It’s “meta” before anyone really even knew what that meant. The movie even rewrites the famous theme song:

maxresdefaultHey, hey, we are The Monkees / You know we love to please / A manufactured image / With no philosophies. 

In a world where “Love Island,” “Married At First Sight” and their ilk have overwhelmed commercial TV, it’s still a cutting little blade of a film. It’s a movie that begins with Micky Dolenz’s apparent suicide and ends with the screaming Monkees being stuffed into a featureless black box and driving away into unknown horrors, forced to perform endlessly in a never-ending hell, a scene that is as dark as any ending from a David Lynch film. (Twin Peaks, meet The Monkees!) I can’t imagine how a teenybopper fan of the band would’ve reacted to it in 1968. 

“Head” is weird, funny and fragmented, but it’s also a stunning little rebuttal to the goofy hijinks of the Monkees TV series and a warped meditation on the fame machine. It’s a miracle it ever got made, and it’s no surprise it sank like a stone at the box office, who expected “A Hard Day’s Night” and got something like a Monkees Apocalypse Now. More than 50 years on, it’s a stone cold trip. 

On seeing Prince, two months before he died

1*SOvl-KNc5_L7sZWZiDB7QwPrince would’ve turned 61 today. I saw him for the first and only time just two months before he died in 2016. I wrote this back then, the morning Prince died, mostly for myself:

Dig if you will, a picture.

Prince. The first time I heard him I was 13 or so and he sounded like an alien. “When Doves Cry” slithered out of the FM radio like nothing else out there, the words “animals they strike curious poses” unlocking something deep in my brain.

Thirty years later he played maybe 10 metres in front of me, and he didn’t seem to have aged a day. Prince would live forever.

He took the stage at Auckland’s ASB Theatre for the early show on that balmy February night with a showman’s swagger, orchestral music swelling up and swelling up for long minutes before, with a crash and a flash of light, Prince’s distinctive afro-topped silhouette popped up before the crowd, twice as tall as the real man.

Two months later he’d be gone, and that doesn’t seem possible, surely some kind of stunt like that time he changed his name into a spaghetti-like symbol.

I’m still not over Bowie. I’m weirdly numb about Prince today. He can’t be gone because two months ago I saw him hold 2,000 people in the palm of his hand, and a force like that can’t die in an elevator at Paisley Park at only 57, can it?

You look now for signs, but there weren’t any. At 57, he was lean and sculpted, poised at the piano and eyes twinkling with amusement. Unlike the elaborate hairdos of his heyday, he’d reverted back to a natural afro, which towered over his head. He was a small man, but he was big. A wiggle of his finger or a tiny curve of a smile and 2,000 people at ASB Theatre sat riveted.

1*hwwPz7avqqQB6TKfKAvS9AWhen I heard the Auckland show was Prince solo with a piano and a microphone I was a bit worried – none of those screeching, thunderous guitar solos, no dynamic interplay with the backing band. An “unplugged” Prince conjured up worrying images of a Las Vegas-style revue with the Purple One sipping on sparkling water and turning every song into a Liberace number.

I was wrong. Prince showed us the skeletons and muscle behind the songs, reminding us that while he was flamboyant and eccentric, he was also one of the greatest songwriters of the past 50 years.

They were his first and only New Zealand shows, two tightly planned gigs executed with tremendous precision. Tickets flew out the door in seconds no matter the cost. I dithered for five minutes too long and missed out, spent the next week or so in FOMO funk. Yeah, it was a lot of money, but PRINCE, man. There’s no regrets like those born from chickening out at the last second.

Then the day before the concert, there was a flurry on Twitter over a few last-minute ticket releases for the show. No hesitation. I Would Die 4 U. Click. Ninth row. Nine rows from Prince. Forget the cost.

At ASB theatre, he cracked right in to the distinctive riff of “I Would Die 4 U,” and summed up his appeal for all of us: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something that you’ll never understand.” Is it hyperbole to say it felt like we were in the presence of genius? But it feels true.

12734006_10208888189304572_9185663524839450730_nThe Prince on stage at Aotea Centre was at the top of his game, a master at playing the crowd. But he was having FUN as well, something that’s hard to find at that lofty level of fame. He threw a dash of “Charlie Brown” theme music into “Little Red Corvette,” and it was like watching a master painter at work, scribbling tiny doodles in the margins. He recast all the classics, turning “Purple Rain” into a gospel revival, “Kiss” into a funky dance party. More than 30 years into his career, it felt like a victory lap.

“Can I stay for a bit?” he purred at the end of one of several encores. He could do this all night, he was letting us know, but could we handle it?

He’d played Sydney and Melbourne just a day or two before, and the very next day he was off to bloody Perth on the other side of Australia. Then he was going to Oakland, California, right after that. This Prince would play forever!

The crowd stood on its feet for minutes. He basked in applause, raised a hand, waved, and spun, turned, and dashed off the stage in a disarmingly childlike, awkward manner – and that was our last sight of Prince, sliding off into the shadows, his music still ringing in our ears. How could he just leave us standing, alone in a world so cold?

Sellers’ market: The very worst of Peter Sellers

THERESAGIRLINMYSOUPLC8I have a bizarre fascination with the bad movies of Peter Sellers, of which there are many. 

I love Peter Sellers, but before his untimely death at just 54 in 1980, he wasted his protean talent in an awful, awful lot of trash. The chameleon was an actor who was reborn in each role in startling ways, from French detectives to Hindu partygoers to Christ-like savant politician. “The Pink Panther” series, “Being There,” “Dr. Strangelove” – the man starred in a lot of classic movies. 

But of the somewhere around 50 movies he starred in, many are clumsy, dated and a bit offensive by modern standards. He didn’t have a great eye for picking his projects, many of which scream “paycheck!” Yet I’m still drawn to Sellers in them, who holds the cinematic light like a candle in the dark through even the most slapdash of productions. 

magicchristian_ringo_sellersI’ve been making my way as a kind of punishing completist chore through the most obscure of Sellers’ oeuvre, movies that are barely remembered today. Sellers was a difficult, demon-haunted man, whose talent was crippled by bad health and serious psychological issues (there’s the famous quote “There is no me. I do not exist. There used to be a me, but I had it surgically removed,” which more than anything sums up the man). 

Many of Sellers’ best bad movies are those only-in-the-‘60s crazed drug dreams of cinema, like “The Magic Christian” with Ringo Starr as Sellers’ son, or “What’s New, Pussycat?,” the definitive swinging ‘60s all-star lunatic comedy. 

In the 1970s Sellers’ movies got weirder and worse, tipping from good-bad to bad-bad. There’s “Soft Beds, Hard Battles,” a weirdly inept WWII comedy about a brothel, featuring Sellers in six roles, including Adolf Hitler. “Where Does It Hurt?” is a justly-forgotten lame, sloppy 1972 “comedy” about a corrupt hospital that drags for 85 endless minutes, only lifted when Sellers’ malevolent hospital administrator stalks through the scenery.

project-of-the-day-ghost-peter-sellersAnd I am absolutely dying to see the new documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” an entire film about the apocalyptic making of one of his flops, the pirate film “Ghost In The Noonday Sun.” 

“Being There” climaxed his career with an Oscar nomination, but it wasn’t Sellers’ last gasp – that was “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu,” one of the strangest Hollywood movies of all time, with Sellers playing both “yellow peril” villain Fu and his nemesis Nayland Smith in another cobbled-together, rambling mess of a movie that ends with an Elvis impersonation. That one is good-bad-good-bad-bad on a whole new level. 

I wish he’d done a dozen more “Being Theres” instead of ten “There’s A Girl In My Soups” but sometimes you find gems in the dross, like “The Blockhouse,” an almost forgotten serious drama about D-Day which is one of Sellers’ best, least remembered movies. 

MV5BM2JiMjQ0NzQtZmUxZS00YTkyLWIxOWEtMzZiMTNhYjIxOThlXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNDY2NzgwOTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1247,1000_AL_There’s a kernel of something golden in even his worst movies. His Fu Manchu is objectively a racist joke played far too long, but there’s a strange sadness Sellers summons up between the lame puns in his portrayal of an immortal villain.

When they say something is “strictly for the fans,” I often think of Peter Sellers’ bad movies. They really are only for obsessed fans like me, who can watch a gifted, protean actor bring a little sparkle of talent to B-movie comedies that didn’t deserve him. 

Godzilla, or, sometimes you just need to smash shit up

godzillaI love Godzilla, because when I’m in the mood, you just want to watch a giant lizard smash the hell out of everything around you. Another big-budget Godzilla movie opened this weekend, and it’s gotten the usual mixed reviews from people who don’t really get the point of a Godzilla movie. 

I never heard the word ‘kaiju’ until I was in my early 30s and every hipster with a DVD collection was spouting it, but it does trip off the tongue better than “giant monster movies.” I love all kinds of monsters and aliens, but Godzilla kaiju movies are the pure biscuits and gravy of the casino buffet of cinema. For more than 60 years now, they’ve been stomping along to the same general formula – Godzilla returns, stomps around a lot, fights another monster or two, sometimes Godzilla’s the good guy and sometimes the bad, and there’s always an annoying human-focused side plot or three. 

godzilla-vs-king-kongMy first Godzilla movie was a battered VHS tape of 1963’s “King Kong Vs. Godzilla”, and to this day it’s one of my desert island flicks. It’s absurd – this Kong looks more like a squashed and mangy grizzly bear than a gorilla, really – but so much damned fun as this duo wrestle and tumble around Japan.

Did you know there’s been an insane thirty-five Godzilla movies since 1954’s original? They range from the Saturday morning-matinee cheese of the “Showa” era to the steroid-infused bombast of the “Heisei” films in the 1980s and 1990s to the flashy, crazed “Millennium” period of the early 2000s. Some of the movies are worse than others, but usually they’re at least worth a watch (except for 1998’s misbegotten “igunazilla” Hollywood bomb, of which we won’t speak again). 

gigan2For those who think the current Godzilla: King of the Monsters is wacky, check out 1991’s utterly unhinged “Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah,” which features time-travel, a ridiculous “Terminator” riff and the spectacle of Mecha-Ghidorah. For those who want something a little deeper, 2016’s “Shin Godzilla” is a strange satire of Japanese bureaucracy mixed up with some of the most awe-inspiring Godzilla scenes ever. For those who just remember Godzilla wrestling other rubber-suited goofballs on sound stages, 1972’s “Godzilla Vs Gigan” is the kaiju-fest you’ve been hunting for, and Gigan, with his chicken beak, massive talons and inexplicable buzzsaw blade sticking out of the middle of his chest, is peak kaiju craziness. Meanwhile, 1971’s eco-thriller “Godzilla Vs Hedorah” (aka “Godzilla Vs The Smog Monster”) features hippies and the goopiest Godzilla nemesis of all. It also features this anecdote courtesy of Wikipedia that’s too crazy not to mention: Kenpachiro Satsuma, the actor who played Hedorah, was struck with appendicitis during the production. Doctors were forced to perform the appendectomy while he was still wearing the Hedorah suit, due to the length of time it took to take off. Let me repeat that: A man dressed as a kaiju had his appendix taken out. 

“Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” aka Godzilla II, has all the horsepower of a million CGI-producing gigabytes behind it to produce images the original Toho team could’ve only dreamt of, but at its core it’s just as silly and funky as the guy in a rubber suit movies of the ‘60s despite its Hollywood cast. Thankfully, it takes itself much less seriously than 2014’s too-ponderous Godzilla reboot, and delivers images of almost painterly beauty amongst the mayhem. You get a four-way monster-mash throw down reducing downtown Boston to shreds at one point, and honestly, that’s all I want out of a Godzilla movie. If you disregard the fact that every single human character in Godzilla II should’ve died 17 times over, it’s a lot of fun. 

Godzilla movies are an acquired taste. They’ll never achieve the crossover success of, say, Marvel movies or Star Wars, but like I said, sometimes all you want out of a movie is watching one monster shove another one’s head through a skyscraper. And next year, they’re releasing a remake of Godzilla’s championship title bout with King Kong. I’ll be there opening day. 

The wit and wisdom of E.B. Farnum

cq5dam-1.web.1200.675“I yearn to rely on a higher will. I fear what I am capable of in its absence.” – E.B. Farnum

Yeah, yeah, everyone’s been talking about that show with the dragons and thrones this week, but I’ve been far more engaged by a mud-soaked, profane and utterly human deep dive into the mire of history.

I’ve been rewatching the definitive western saga “Deadwood” in preparation for the long-awaited movie conclusion coming later this month, and while I generally enjoy that “Thrones” stuff, I’ll take the gin and grit of creator David Milch’s unblinking author’s eye in “Deadwood” every time. 

The show’s incredibly dense writing and plotting make it one you have to pay close attention to – every scene is packed with allusions and the bustling, chaotic energy of a gold rush town slowly being pulled into the American expansion west. “Deadwood” populated its South Dakota town with a Noah’s ark of battered, eccentric characters during its three-season run from 2004-2006, including Ian McShane’s indelible Al Swearingen and Timothy Olyphant’s flinty-eyed Sheriff Bullock. I could list a dozen terrific characters from the show and have a dozen more left to spare. 

But yet, the one I keep coming back to, captivated, on my recent rewatch of the series is perhaps its most vile – William Sanderson’s oily, unctuous and verbose E.B. Farnum, Deadwood’s powerless “Mayor” and hotel owner. Farnum is the grand fool of Milch’s Shakespearean tapestry in “Deadwood,” always cringing and yet calculating at the same time, a grandiloquent sleazebag of a man.

Sanderson’s terrific, underrated performance of this Wild West Uriah Heep is hilarious and sad, as Farnum is constantly humbled and deserves every bit of it. There are times when you might feel a twinge of pity for his bluster, but then he spouts more racist rhetoric or conniving kiss-assery and you’re back to despising him again. He’s a grifter whose poetic, meandering soliloquies are often breathtakingly beautiful, yet they’ll never be appreciated because of the toadying weasel they’re being uttered by. 

“Deadwood” is a show about man’s pull between civilisation and freedom, ambitions and realities. America’s history is full of a rich tapestry of big-mouthed, oblivious dreamers who puff themselves up full of vanities and talk their way to success. As many of them fail as succeed, but the point is in the striving.

E.B. Farnum, in his hapless, malicious way, is perhaps the greatest American in TV history. 

Alex Chilton and the art of falling apart

chilton-hero

The Replacements wrote a song about Alex Chilton during the 1980s, when he was a cult figure who hadn’t quite been rediscovered yet. It reimagined Chilton as the world-conquering pop superstar he only really was at the very start of his career, and never again: ‘Children by the million sing for Alex Chilton when he comes ’round / They sing “I’m in love. What’s that song? I’m in love with that song.”‘

Chilton had his first #1 hit at the age of 16 with The Box Tops, with “The Letter,” a sneering, propulsive slab of teen pop that stands head and shoulders over a lot of its peers – seriously, look at the video above and check out the star power blooming in that kid.

He then resurfaced in the mid-70s as part of Memphis’ Big Star, one of the most influential power-pop bands of all time, crafting unforgettable anthems like “In The Street” and “September Gurls” before moving on to brittle, beautiful broken gems on the gorgeous Third/Sister-Lovers album. Big Star got ‘rediscovered’ by many of us in the 1990s through some great CD reissues, and their cult only continues to grow decades later – like the Velvet Underground, they became legends only long after they were gone. 

But after Big Star crumbled apart, Chilton’s career from the late ‘70s to his sadly early death at age 59 in 2010 was a strange hopscotch through genres, laced heavily with sardonic wit and a weird irresistible ennui. He spent the rest of his life carefully taking apart all the things he’d built up – perfect pop songs, aching singer-songwriter ballads – creating a kind of ramshackle, slacker troubadour persona where almost every song seems delivered with a wink and a mildly insincere croon. It’s the sound of irony, the art of falling apart.

Yet while I adore Chilton’s tighter, more remembered Big Star and Box Tops work, there’s a strange charm in him crashing his way through tunes like “My Baby Just Cares For Me” that I find unforgettable.  Live albums of him from the period sputter and crackle with devil-may-care slacker pop, but Chilton himself is never less than magnetic. Sometimes you feel him pushing a song just as much as he could before it broke apart. 

Alex Chilton Posed In New YorkIt wasn’t for nothing that one of his best albums is called A Man Called Destruction. He was the spirit of punk rock incarnated in a teen crooner’s body. 

The man wrote some of the great songs of the 1970s, but after that he worked as a dishwasher, a tree-trimmer, a janitor, and a wayfaring gig musician. He moved to New Orleans, where the city’s jazz added a cool, chilled-out vibe to his sound. His sporadic albums mixed loose-limbed originals like “No Sex,” “Bangkok” and “Lost My Job” with out-of-the-box covers of all kinds of ‘50s and ‘60s rarities. He called an album of covers Cliches. He called another one, um, Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy.

Sometimes Chilton could get so loose he’s practically in pieces – since his death, we’ve seen a fair bit of barrel-scraping in unreleased music come out, some of it great, some of it unlistenable. 

Do I wish Alex Chilton had written some kind of Pet Sounds-type final masterpiece that had gotten him the acclaim he deserved before the end? Yeah, sort of, but I also appreciate diving into the bits and pieces he left behind, of a man who had nothing to prove and who spent his time scribbling around in the margins and between the lines of the craft he peaked at by age 25. 

Thirty years on, we’re still living in an ‘Alien Nation’

Alien_Nation_01The best science fiction holds up a mirror to the world we live in. “Alien Nation” was never quite a household name, but the brief cult sci-fi franchise of the late ‘80s still holds up today.

The story is simple – a spaceship crashes into the Mojave desert, with a cargo of half a million alien slaves, ‘bred to adapt and labour in any environment,’ left stranded on Earth. These alien “Newcomers” aren’t quite like us – they have spots on their skulls, drink sour milk to get drunk, and prefer their food alive – but they’re close enough to awkwardly begin to integrate into human society, which is where “Alien Nation” picks up the story, five years after they landed. 

The saga began with the 1988 film Alien Nation, a moderate hit with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin. George Francisco is the first Newcomer detective on the LAPD, paired with bigoted human partner Matt Sikes. Let the culture-clash hijinks ensue! It’s gifted with a great premise, but the movie doesn’t really deliver on its potential, turning into a generic “Lethal Weapon” cop buddy picture by the end and never really exploring what an entirely alien race blending into Los Angeles would be like. 

aliennationremake-1Fortunately, that wasn’t the end for “Alien Nation,” which debuted as a series on Fox TV in September 1989. It’s in the short-lived TV series where “Alien Nation” really blossomed, spearheaded by Kenneth Johnson, creator of another great ’80s cult sci-fi series, “V.”

“Alien Nation,” the series, is a perfect mix of cheesy late-80s cop show and progressive science fiction ideas, and as long as you don’t mind big hair, pastels and synth-heavy soundtracks, it’s great viewing. The series features a wide cast of Newcomer wives, children, professionals and criminals, priests and prostitutes and the Newcomers (or Tenctonese as they call themselves) are as plausibly drawn as the Klingons or Vulcans.

500px-Aliennation-series-sw669The story carries on with the same odd-couple detective duo from the movie, but recast and given more satisfying depth. Gary Graham’s Detective Sikes is all ’80s mullet and brash trigger-happy cop cliches at first, but the character becomes convincingly more sympathetic and layered as the series progresses. Eric Pierpoint is excellent as Francisco, who balances personal courage with frequent frustrations over the racism he encounters and the culture he’s left behind. The story of his family trying to fit in – his wife, teenage son and daughter – is often more fascinating than the TV show’s cop mystery of the week storyline. The cop stuff is goofily fun, but it’s the examinations of the human and alien condition that linger.

The series gets deeper and deeper into the fascinating Newcomer culture as it goes. An episode, “Three To Tango,” which goes deep into Newcomer mating rituals (it involves two males and one female) is surprisingly explicit and thought-provoking for 1980s broadcast TV. The show also delves deep into the Newcomers’ origins as a slave society and who they were slaves to. 

Unfortunately, “Alien Nation” was a bit too ahead of its time (it’d go great today on a streaming network) and only lasted one season, but it did get five sequel TV movies which nicely expanded and wrapped up the saga. You can see its inspiration clearly in a movie like 2009’s District 9, which for my money was a lot less subtle and thoughtful. 

It’d be nice to say that 30 years on we could all view “Alien Nation” and say how far we’ve all come from prejudice and hatred of the other in our lives, but unfortunately that’d only be science fiction.