We gave it a D+
According to Daydream Believers: The Monkees Story, VH1’s new TV movie, this was the Monkees’ reaction upon listening to the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when it was released in June 1967:
Peter Tork: ”How are we supposed to compete with that?”
Mickey Dolenz: ”We can’t — not and do the [TV] show and the concerts and everything else.”
Yeah, right: If it just weren’t for that pesky career momentum, the Monkees would have been free to crank out something better than, say, ”Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” or ”A Day in the Life.” Which is not to say that Tork (L.B. Fisher), Dolenz (Aaron Lohr), Mike Nesmith (Jeff Geddis), and Davy Jones (George Stanchev)–along with the songwriters, musicians, and producers behind them — didn’t have their virtues. The group had six top 10 singles and a TV show that even won an Emmy in 1967 (beating not only Hogan’s Heroes and Get Smart, but The Andy Griffith Show!). Beyond that, I’ll take the Monkees’ 1966 No. 1 hit ”I’m a Believer” (actually written by Neil Diamond) over ”When I’m 64” (written by Paul McCartney) any day.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine anyone who didn’t live through what we shall very gingerly call the heyday of the Monkees extracting much sense, let alone pleasure, from Daydream Believers. This biopic dramatizes how an American rock group was created via the Hollywood audition process to compete with the British Invasion spearheaded by the Beatles and, for a while, actually made a go of it. It hinges its drama on the idea that we will find the notion of manufacturing a band scandalous.
In the post-Milli Vanilli universe (where there’s even a TV series called Making the Band, about creating a Backstreet Boys knockoff), the agony and the ecstasy of the Monkees — they had hits, but felt bitter and guilty because they didn’t create the hits on their own — must strike the younger demographic as quaint, if not downright incomprehensible. Then again, VH1 isn’t going for the younger demographic — their audience is baby boomers, for whom the Monkees were always a guilty pleasure and who weren’t fazed by Nesmith’s having that green stocking cap permanently affixed to his head even in the hot California sun.
The movie restages the TV show’s faux-Marx Brothers slapstick comedy with clumsy verve. The acting is fine: Stanchev gets Davy Jones’ onstage tambourine-shaking spasms just right, and Geddis captures Nesmith’s contradictory combination of goofiness and craftiness. Lohr’s Dolenz, however, looks more like Howie Mandel circa St. Elsewhere. And the script by Ron McGee is tin-eared and full of missed opportunities. Where, for instance, is any mention of the real reason Nesmith, the first to go solo, could afford to quit: the fact that he had a comfy financial cushion as the heir to the woman who invented the typist’s greatest gift, Liquid Paper? Also, in the ’60s, no one used the term ”dysfunctional” or the phrase ”peace, love, and understanding” (it was coined by Nick Lowe a rock generation later), let alone the mouthful describing the group as ”a manufactured image to capitalize on the zeitgeist of America!”
Wallace Langham of Veronica’s Closet puts in a smart, brief appearance as veteran record and TV producer Don Kirshner, who helped form the group and later felt burned when the post-stardom Monkees wanted creative independence. (Kirshner learned his lesson; his next act, the Archies, was a complete fabrication — comic-book characters whose glorious 1969 confection ”Sugar, Sugar” was made by uncredited studio musicians.)
It’s likely that legal reasons have Daydream presenting us with pot-smoking fictional character ”Van Foreman” (Colin Ferguson), whose real-life counterpart was Monkees producer-director Bob Rafelson, the man behind the group’s 1968 feature film flop, Head, and future director of Five Easy Pieces, starring Jack Nicholson. (Nicholson, however, does appear, in the form of Matthew Schmelzle doing a bad nightclub comic-style impersonation of the actor.)
Near the end, the Tork character reads aloud from a dud review of Head: ”They worked very hard and aren’t any good.” That wasn’t true of the Monkees — c’mon, ”I’m a Believer” is a good song — but it does neatly summarize this movie. Soon to come from VH1 ”Original Movies” (I kid you not): Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back. If only Chris Farley were still alive… D+