The world lost a renaissance man when Mike Nesmith died. Over a career that spanned half a century, Nesmith worked on groundbreaking projects for TV and music. As a member of The Monkees, he was one of the first people to play a rock musician on a TV show; well-respected songwriters like Carole King, Harry Nilsson, and Neil Diamond penned the band’s songs. After leaving the Monkees in 1970, Nesmith produced albums for cult artists like Ian Matthews of Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch, and he released a string of solo albums that made the psychedelic country music trend more accessible to mainstream audiences.
Nesmith balanced his music work with film and video production in the 1970s and ‘80s. When he collaborated with director William Dear on a short film for his single “Rio”, he coined the phrase “music video clip” to describe what he’d made. The success of the “Rio” video led Nesmith to assist in the development of what became MTV, and, eventually, to produce and distribute small movies through his Pacific Arts Corporation shingle. Tapeheads, the third and final film Nesmith produced, updated the showbiz slapstick of The Monkees for an audience weaned on MTV.
The plot of Tapeheads could have been the storyline for an episode of The Monkees. Disaffected slacker Josh (Tim Robbins) still lives with his parents, where he remixes home movies and dreams of becoming a film director. When he loses his job as a security guard after a prank gone wrong, he starts a video production company with his sleazy friend Ivan (John Cusack). Their gaffe-prone work as the directorial duo Video Aces leaves a trail of mayhem and carnage in their wake. After the lead singer of a death metal band dies on set in a freak dolly accident, the clip Video Aces makes for the band is rushed into heavy rotation at the music video network RVTV. Josh and Ivan’s freak success leads them on a scheme to bring the Swanky Modes, their favorite R&B duo, back into the spotlight.
The Monkees depicted the band as a hapless group of strivers who lost out on Battle of the Bands competitions and failed to get the attention of record producers. Josh and Ivan’s misadventures in filmmaking takes the cynical subtext of some Monkees episodes and puts it front and center. Record company impresario Mo Fuzz (Don Cornelius) hires Video Aces on spec to make some low-budget clips for his bands, asking them to make sure “production values… tits and ass” make the final cut. Josh and Ivan turn in a clip that’s just close-ups of decolletage and rear ends, shot on consumer-grade VHS and not even edited in time to the music. The poor quality of the video doesn’t phase their client, who very enthusiastically approves the video. This early scene sets the tone for Video Aces’ later encounters with music-industry insiders.
The look and visual language of Tapeheads also puts a 1980s spin on The Monkees’ aesthetic. Series creators Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider were among the first filmmakers to incorporate techniques from the nouvelle vague—like jump cuts and breaking the fourth wall—into media aimed at middle-American audiences. By the time Tapeheads was in production, these techniques had been incorporated into mainstream filmmaking, thanks in part to MTV. Director Bill Fishman and editor Mondo Jenkins satirized the MTV house style with faster cuts, exaggerated camera angles, and use of home video-quality VHS. The ad Video Aces make for Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles, with its comically low-angle tracking shot and 35mm footage intercut with the restaurant’s earlier, public access-worthy commercial, is representative of the approach Fishman and his team take throughout the film. The fast editing, saturated neon palette, and glassy, angular art direction underscore the disorienting feeling Josh in particular must have experienced in Video Aces’ whirlwind rise to fame.
The Monkees occasionally cast their lesser-known musician friends as featured players in episodes of their show; Frank Zappa was a guest star on a few episodes, and folk singer Tim Buckley closed out the final episode with a live performance of “Song of the Siren”. Nesmith kept this up with Tapeheads, casting underground heroes like Courtney Love, Xander Schloss, Stiv Bators, and Jello Biafra in cameo roles. Biafra’s cameo as an FBI agent was especially pointed, since he shot it less than two years after obscenity charges against his band were dropped. Just as appearances from Sunset Strip musicians with a cult following gave The Monkees a sense of authenticity, the cameos seeded throughout Tapeheads give the stylized, farcical movie a bit of grounding in the alternative scenes where the film was set.
Buoyed by a string of hit singles, The Monkees was a respectable hit on its premiere. Tapeheads didn’t have that kind of immediate success; it made less than $350k on its initial release in October of 1988. Its failure to make back its budget may have played a role in Nesmith’s decision to focus on distribution and the home video market. While Mike Nesmith wouldn’t produce another film, Tapeheads would eventually find an audience through cable TV broadcasts and on video. As we look back on Nesmith’s career, Tapeheads is a fitting part of his legacy; its sense of fun and innovation were present throughout his body of work, updated here for a 1980s audience.
“Tapeheads” is available on several streaming services.