The movie's origin was in Ojai, California, where The Monkees, producer/director Bob Rafelson and writer Jack Nicholson spent a weekend in a resort motel verbally tossing story ideas into a tape recorder. This became the script for this film.
The Monkees wanted to be involved in this project from start to finish. When they learned they would be denied screenwriting credit, all but Peter Tork decided to rebel by failing to show up on the first day of shooting, 11 February 1968.
When it was finally edited together into a cohesive whole, it ran 10 minutes short of an unprecedented 2 hours! A poor audience response at an August 1968 screening in Los Angeles eventually forced the producers to edit the picture down to 86 minutes.
A misleading ad campaign (featuring a balding man's face and no mention of The Monkees), combined with a poorly timed release date (due to postproduction delays) of 6 November 1968, two months after The Monkees (1966) show was canceled, sabotaged this otherwise fun-loving crowd-pleaser at the box office. It made a meager $16,111 in ticket sales.
The "box" shown in several scenes in the film was inspired by a large square booth that was built for The Monkees during the filming of their TV show. Between takes, they grew bored and wandered around the studio, often getting lost, so studio brass had a large "room" built for them in one of the sound stages. According to one of the Monkees, they would spend time there studying their scripts, composing and playing music, and smoking (which they were forbidden to do on the set). Colored lights were added to the room to page whoever was needed on the set.
Peter Tork was the only one of The Monkees to appear on the set for the first scheduled day of filming--the others had decided to strike, in protest against not being allowed to write and direct the movie themselves. While they soon returned, feeling they'd made their point with producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, the unity between the band and the producers was forever broken. For their part, Rafelson and Schneider began playing albums on the set by other groups like Electric Flag, claiming, "That's REAL rock-n-roll."
Co-writer Jack Nicholson actually compiled the movie soundtrack in its final form, with snippets of the movie dialogue between songs, and is so credited on the album cover. (When he saw Michael Nesmith at work in the studio and asked if he could help, Nesmith let him take over, because "I just want to go home".) Nicholson had unwavering enthusiasm for the movie, joining in a stickering campaign to promote the premiere, and declaring later that "I saw it, like, 158 million times, man. I loved it!"
Veteran actor Victor Mature agreed to appear in the movie after reading the script, admitting none of it made sense to him: "All I know is it makes me laugh." His character "The Big Victor" is presumed to be a comic jab at RCA Victor Records, which was the distributors for The Monkees records, and which also owned NBC, which aired their TV series.
The Coca-Cola Co. reportedly wasn't amused at The Monkees' take on then-current Coke commercials (desert wanderer Micky Dolenz faces off against an uncooperative soda machine, as a jingle plays), and tried to get an injunction against the movie. When the movie reappeared on cable and home video in 1986, Columbia Pictures was owned by Coca-Cola, and the issue apparently forgotten.
Five years after its premiere, the movie was shown in a 1973 Raybert retrospective, along with Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Easy Rider (1969), and finally gained a positive response from fans and critics.
The "box" that The Monkees keep getting trapped in and attempt to escape from is symbolic of television, as the real Monkees felt trapped in what they considered to be their increasingly silly TV show. They wanted to "escape" the show in order to express themselves with no boundaries to their creativity. The first realization of this freedom was, in fact, the film "Head."
Had its television broadcast premiere on "The CBS Late Movie" (1972) Monday, December 30, 1974 (Michael Nesmith's 32nd birthday, and Davy Jones' 29th), at 11:30 pm (EST), airing opposite The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (1962) on NBC and The Gator Bowl (Texas Longhorns versus Auburn Tigers) on ABC. CBS repeated the film on Monday, July 7, 1975, also @ 11:30 PM (EDT), against "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" on NBC, and "Wide World Mystery" (1973) on ABC.
Michael Nesmith's birthday party sequence was shot at Paramount Studios on a set from Rosemary's Baby (1968). It featured 100 extras and pop artist Edward Kienholz, whose 1964 sculpture "Back Seat Dodge '38" was featured on set.