“I find it very difficult myself to make movies where I know right from the beginning what the end is going to be.” — Bob Rafelson

It’s his birthday today.

In 1965, television producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider placed an ad in the Hollywood Reporter:

MADNESS!! AUDITIONS Folk & Roll Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series. Running parts for 4 insane boys, age 17-21”

Many are called, but few are chosen. In this case, the “4 insane boys” chosen were Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones. The idea was to create a pop group for a situation comedy, with built-in limitless merchandising and/or concert and/or opportunities. Glee 40 years before Glee. Predicting the wave of manufactured boy bands which overtook the pop industry, again, thirty years later. The wild thing about the Monkees, which sets them apart, is they weren’t just “4 insane boys”. They could write damn good pop songs, songs that still get radio play today, still show up in movie soundtracks, they just came together again and put out an album I love. And that’s all that matters. Their songs are catchy, the lyrics are humorous, and there’s a strain of melancholy in their chord arrangements, plus great hooks.

The Monkees were the brainchild of Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider – launched into the thick of the mid-60s and … it worked.

It was short-lived but it worked. Go look up their chart rankings. It’s insane, considering the competition. In 1967, the Monkees had two of the top-selling singles. Bob Stanley, in his book Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, which tracks the history of pop music from Bill Haley to Beyonce – devotes a whole chapter to The Monkees, for which he has an abiding affection. Stanley writes:

Ultimately, [the Monkees] affirmed the Brill Building–and, tangentially, Motown–as the secret motor of the best sixties pop, and also showed Monterey to be the decade’s great fulcrum of failure–dethroning the Mamas and the Papas (despite their role in setting it up), destabilizing Brian Wilson, and putting in their place all kinds of self-satisfied, underachieving acts.

The Monkees didn’t stroll into the doldrums of popular music. They cavorted into one of the high watermarks, and they crushed.

They paid a price, though. In a world where music was suddenly seen as thuper-therious and could maybe change the world, they were seen as Pre-Fab, phony, pretenders. As though everybody else was totally 100% organic and raised up from the dirt of authenticity. Puh-leeze.

To add some shading to this, Rafelson always had misgivings about what he was doing. He loved the Monkees, he hated them. On the strength of the television show, and the albums, Rafelson decided to write, produce, and direct a film starring The Monkees. It would be a break in style and feel from what made the Monkees the Monkees. Jack Nicholson (Rafelson’s great friend – we’ll get to him in a second) co-produced. Head was psychedelic and fragmented – following the trend of the year it was made (1968). It featured the Monkees being ground up into powder at one point. It ended with them being hustled into a truck and driven off the studio lot. Good-bye Monkees. So strange. But it essentially – and actually – killed the Monkees. (All of this pre-dates my existence. My first encounter with the Monkees was when they appeared on The Brady Bunch. I thought Mike Nesmith was THE BOMB. He was my favorite.)

So Bob Rafelson – a man who always did whatever the hell he wanted to do, because fuck The Man – killed his own creation.

Look at those taglines.

The Monkees are important but they were just a small chapter in this innovator’s career. In the 1960s, he and his co-conspirator Bert Schneider, founded BBS productions, an independent operation for television projects. BBS’ reputation has huge symbolic appeal, especially across the wastes of times. They were pioneers and very much a part of the rise of American independent film in the 1970s. In fact, they launched it almost single-handedly: Rafelson produced a super obscure film called Easy Rider. Jack Nicholson’s name will come up again and again in this story. As will Carole Eastman, who wrote Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson went to her with all of his scripts for notes/doctoring).

Head came after Easy Rider. Rafelson rode the whirlwind. He then directed the mighty Five Easy Pieces, one of the best American films of the 1970s (and it premiered in 1970, so it was all out there on its own). I would argue it’s one of the best American films, period. Co-written by Rafelson and Eastman, and starring Jack Nicholson – with an unforgettable Karen Black – Five Easy Pieces is one of the loneliest and most introverted and strange American movies. Strangeness like this has rarely been allowed in mainstream American film – and it ushered in a whole new world.

Rafelson produced Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, another seminal film in the 1970s, and followed up Five Easy Pieces, with The King of Marvin Gardens, again with Jack Nicholson, although this time in counter-intuitive casting. Rafelson directed Stay Hungry, the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice, again with Nicholson, opposite Jessica Lange. The 1970s were Rafelson’s decade. Work slowed down in the corporate-driven greedy 80s. But he left his mark.

A mark as indelible as the one left by Jack Nicholson playing the piano on the back of a flat-bed truck in the middle of a traffic jam.

The final shot of Five Easy Pieces was what flooded into my mind when I heard the news that Bob Rafelson has died at the age of 89. It is one of my favorite final shots in cinema.

Charles Higham wrote of the shot in The Art of American Cinema:

Rafelson and his cameraman László Kovács fix the scene in our minds forever: the filling station and its discreet restroom; the grey surrounding buildings; the dripping autumnal vegetation of the Pacific Northwest; the parked truck waiting to go to Alaska; the face of Nicholson, already aging and filled with premonitory shadows, fixed behind the windshield. Religion, love and family have all failed to work, leaving absolutely nothing at the end but a journey to nowhere.

I saw Five Easy Pieces at age 17, 18, and in many ways it’s never left me. The final shot is a vision of the world and life that felt very familiar – eerily, in looking back on it, since I didn’t have the life experience yet. I have the life experience now. The final shot requires an adult’s knowledge. Hard knocks knowledge. It’s not for kids. The world is empty and lonely and restless. Even as a teenager, something in me recognized it. I already knew that shot in my bones.

Bob Rafelson was right. About so many things.

This entry was posted in Directors, Movies, Music, On This Day, Television. Bookmark the permalink.

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