‘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.