The Monkees are a fascinating pop-culture phenomenon. Inspired by The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider developed a TV series about four young men trying to make it as a rock ‘n’ roll band. In the trades they placed a notice for “Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles” and cast actor Mickey Dolenz, musicians Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, and Davy Jones, who both sang and acted as illustrated by his appearance in the original Broadway production of Oliver!
The series, sold to Screen Gems, combined the comedic anarchy of the Marx Brothers with modern-day pop music and avant-garde filmmaking techniques. Due to the quartet’s limitations as musicians, Screen Gems head of music Don Kirshner was assigned to create their music. He bought together songwriters and session players, leaving The Monkees just vocal parts to perform. Before The Monkees aired, their first single, “Last Train to Clarksville” with Mickey on lead vocal, was released.
The Monkees became a multimedia success. The first season won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. During that time their first two albums, The Monkees and More of The Monkees, hit #1 in the U.S. and UK, and each spawned #1 singles in the U.S. The studio wanted them to go out on tour, which they did in December 1966. Over the course of the first season, they had become a band and were no longer actors pretending to be one.
With their success, The Monkees wanted more control over their music and the series and were granted it. Kirshner was removed, and the guys wrote and played the majority of the music on Headquarters. Though the episodes still retain the type of humor and stories from the first season, in part because 10 of the scripts were written during that time, minor and major changes happen over the course of the second season, which is presented in airdate order and not production order. Mickey stops straightening his hair. Mike loses his wool hat. Their clothing reflects the times as the does their music with an embrace of psychedelia. “Hitting the High Seas” finds them losing the laugh track. Both Mickey and Peter direct an episode, “Mijacogeo – The Frodis Caper” and “The Monkees Mind Their Manor” respectively. A preview of what the direction a third season would have been had NBC agreed to it can be seen as they welcome guests Charlie Smalls, Frank Zappa, and Tim Buckley in the last three episodes that aired.
This five-DVD set offers the audio in 2.0 and 5.1. Most of the episodes look good, except “Fairy Tale,” which is dirty and scratched up. “The Monkees in Paris” is noticeably different as it was shot on 16mm. The set has a lot of Special Features to entertain fans. Each disc has an option to listen to/watch all the music segments, known as Romps, it contains.
Each episode features trivia from The Aaron Handy III TV Web Shrine and it is extensive. While it covers what the band was doing regarding recording and performing as the episode was filmed, what portions of episode appear in the opening credits, deleted scenes, and references to original scripts, it also offers bios and connections of actors who play minor parts in the show.
All the band members do commentary tracks, which were recorded in 2003 for a previous DVD release. Davy is on “Hitting the High Seas.” “Fairy Tale” has two: Mike focuses more on the phenomenon of the band than the specific episode, ande Peter has patches of silence like he’s forgotten he’s supposed to talk. He offers a lot more on “The Devil and Peter Tork” and “The Monkees Mind Their Manor.” Mike returns on “”The Monkees Blow Their Minds.” Mickey speaks about “Mijacogeo.” Similar to Mike, series creator/episode director Bob Rafelson talks about the entire endeavor during “The Monkees in Paris,” which finds the band on location experiencing Monkeemania as they run around the city chased by girls.
The TV special 33 and 1/3 Revolutions per Monkee (52 min) is included and may be one of the oddest things to appear on TV. More like their movie Head than their TV series, musician Brian Auger of The Trinity plays some weird character that wants to use The Monkees for a nefarious plan. Through musical numbers, they fight back. A very good part is a sequence featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. The performance of “Listen to the Band” is last time they played as foursome until 1986 because Peter quit the band soon after. There are commentary tracks by Auger and Dolenz, who doesn’t hesitate to describe the thing as weird and boring in parts.
Another extras include an interview (18 min) with series editor Jerry Shepard, who passed away on 5/11/2008; a Photo Gallery; The Monkees in NYC from NBC New Archives (7/6/67) (1 min) is an extremely brief moment during a press conference where they answer a question about the band’s future; and The Monkees (sans Tork) on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (2/5/69) with comedic segments Touch Tone Symphony (1 min) and Secret Agent Sketch (1 min).
The Monkees might be the TV series that best exemplifies the 1960s. Both seasons are worth owning for the laughs and music that they offer.