Friday, July 11, 2014

Beatlemiscellania - The Monkees TV series

When I first compiled my list for this project, I didn't include the Monkees because they're not really a direct parody.  You can't really point directly from one Beatle to one Monkee and say they are a copy.  But the fact remains that The Monkees TV show was created after the film A Hard Day's Night became such a success.  What resulted from what was essentially someone's attempt to cash in on Beatlemania became a fascinating story in and of itself.

Besides A Hard Day's Night, the show shares a lot of characteristics with The Beatles cartoon in its structure of playing two songs per episode while the group engaged in wacky antics of some kind.  The show is really like a cartoon in a lot of ways, with its fast paced editing, silliness, and occasional breaking of the fourth wall.  It's this unusual approach and overall charm of the four actors chosen for the group that has made the show almost timeless, charming children and teenagers in the 80s who caught it on syndication just as it had those in the 60s on its original run. The catchy tunes go a long way to help that as well.

I have very vague memories of watching the TV show in my youth.  It was fun watching the series this time around and getting occasional flashes of memory from what I remember seeing back then.  It happened most often when I would recognize something in season 1 they would later use for the opening titles of season 2 (which was what was used for syndication).  I also remember my aunts (who are about a decade older than me, and were therefore teenagers at the time) asking which Monkee was my favorite.  I eagerly replied "the one with the hat!" because apparently I wasn't bothered with remembering names yet.  They were of course all about Davy Jones.  They are crazy.  Mike Nesmith with his southern drawl and quiet but clever demeanor is still the best.    Micky is probably the funniest and Peter wins me over because I can't imagine how annoying it would be to play an idiot like that all the time (and probably get treated as such in real life, no matter how smart you are).  Davy is just kind of boring by comparison with his constant crushes.

The biggest problem the show suffers from is that they were clearly always trying to push the latest singles around the same time, so you get a lot of episodes in a row that play repeat songs.  When you're watching them on disc that can get a bit tedious.  Apparently in the 70s they re-aired the show but edited in then current Monkees songs into some of the episodes.  While that might create more variety, some of their later songs simply aren't as good and therefore that isn't really much of an improvement.

The other problem that stops at least some of these episodes from being completely timeless is their use of various foreign stereotypes for humor.  Probably the worst was the "evil Chinese" episode, with white actors using makeup to slant their eyes and speaking in Engrish.  "I have you in my crutches!" the villain exclaims at one point.  It's painful to watch now.  Fortunately, these episodes are fairly few in number, leaving the majority of the series to good clean fun that holds up well today.

There's even some particularly smart episodes that I liked a lot.  The Monkees in general stand for self expression and being yourself, and I really enjoyed the episode where they are chosen as "Typical Young Americans of the Year" by a magazine that then chooses to misrepresent them as what they want them to be.  Their behavior at the reward ceremony puts the magazine in their place and brings their own message to the forefront.  It's a fairly common theme for late 60s media, but it's still enjoyable.

The songs from season one are mostly very strong ones, with the exception of  "Your Auntie Grizelda" which grates on my nerves and made me groan every time it popped up in yet another episode.  The performance sequences are also pretty amusing to watch in their own way - while Mike and Peter were actual musicians, they clearly didn't have much stage presence yet and they look just as awkward if not more so than Davy and Micky.

The songs in season two are a little more of a mixed bag - by that point they were starting to insist on being a part of the writing process at least some of the time, and they simply weren't very good song writers. The performance sequences are actually stronger, because the four of them had a lot of chemistry and look like they're having a lot of fun together, but the episode format was changed slightly. While season one often had a song in the middle of the episode to break things up, season two is just straight plot for most of it, ending with a romp where a song plays and the Monkees terrorize whoever has been the villain the whole episode. We then get another performance video right afterward. There are also fewer quick cuts and breaking of the fourth wall becomes all about the Monkees forgetting their lines or literally reading the script on screen. It makes the episodes seem duller, because they're just generic plots that the Monkees don't make any more interesting. Apparently after a long bout of touring, the guys had a hard time recording these episodes, and it shows. There's also a fair number of them where Mike is just not there, because he had a tonsillectomy and they didn't want to stop their schedule for him to recover.

The above applies to about 75% of season two, with the remaining 25% standing out as markedly different and downright experimental. There's a fairy tale episode set up like a play, with minimal sets and Mike playing double duty as himself and the princess they are rescuing. There's an alien episode that features segments with Pat Paulsen doing the comedy he was best known for at the time. Frank Zappa appears in an intro for an episode, where he destroys a car and calls it music. "The Monkees Go to Paris" has no plot to speak of, and is really just a series of vignettes of them running around the city set to music. And then there's the finale, co-written and directed by Mickey Dolenz where an evil magician mind controls everyone with the help of a talking alien bush whose name Frodis was the Monkees code word for marijuana. These odder episodes stand out from the rest and make the season worth checking out, and show that the Monkees themselves were yearning to do something a bit different than the standard plots being thrust on them. Unfortunately the studio wasn't ready for it and so the show was cancelled.

The Monkees kept making music long after the show ended, but at least in my opinion, most of it isn't very good. These guys had a lot of natural charm and comedic timing, but they were not very good musicians. The music they fought so hard to write just doesn't compare to the fantastic songs written for them in the early years.

After the series the Monkees made a film called Head, which was far, far different from the show. I have not watched it yet, as it is perfect material for the Monthly Midnight Movie Exchange.  But included on the second season disc of The Monkees is the televised special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. It's been referred to as the television version of Head, and oh boy does it give me a lot to look forward to in that regard. It's definitely closer to performance art than a typical variety show television special, though there is a great middle segment featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Beyond that though are strange dance numbers and an evil Charles Darwin. It's really hard to describe on its own, you just have to see it for yourself.

There was also Hey Hey It's the Monkees, a special that aired in 1997 and marked the last time all four of them got together before Davy's death. It was written and directed by Nesmith, and the main joke is that it is supposed to be episode 781 of the show, acting as if it was never cancelled and the guys have just been living in that beach house still trying to make it big all this time. The jokes are incredibly corny and I can't tell if it's just that the guys are of the age that they can't make anything other than goofy dad jokes or if this was Nesmith's view of how bad he thought the original show was. The special also works as a promo for Justus, their reunion album that had come out the year before, and those songs are just plain awful. They also do a medley of their classics "Last Train to Clarksville," "Daydream Believer," "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone," "I'm a Believer," and "Pleasant Valley Sunday" which is pretty good. I was a little disappointed by the fact that someone on the show requests Mike to wear the hat again, and he puts in a line about how he lost it. As if someone couldn't have recreated a similar one for the special. Don't be such a grump for once and just wear the hat, Mike. Yeesh.

That kind of frustration is a lot of what I feel for the Monkees in general. When you watch interviews from the 90s, it's amazing to see how much ire they still had thirty years later for things that happened to them. Don Kirshner was the man who chose the early hit songs for them, but if you listen to Mike and Peter in particular, you would think the man was a demon. I'll admit from the interviews of him I've seen, the man doesn't have much charm himself, but it's pretty clear that he had an ear for music and knew how to choose hits. The Monkees were the first boy band in a lot of ways, and the auditions they signed up for seem to make that pretty clear, but they always seemed to fight that from the start. With no established record of this kind of model of business, I guess you can expect some kind of kickback from your talent but these guys seem to be living in some kind of lala land.

Of course, it's been nearly another two decades, and I'll admit I haven't caught any recent interviews to see if maybe they've mellowed out since. I'm sure the criticism they received in their early years didn't help either, and was truly ridiculous considering that session musicians and songs written by professional song writers rather than the band themselves was something quite common place for the time period. If they hadn't been structured to resemble the Beatles so much, they probably never would have received that flack at all. But I think by the 80s at least people had a much better understanding of what they were about; it's a shame they never let go of that chip on their shoulder and just embraced it themselves.

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