Book Review: The Monkees: Made in Hollywood

For those of us of a certain age, The Monkees are an important part of our world, woven into the pop culture fabric of our lives. Their TV show was a high-profile piece of the entertainment landscape in the 1960s, and again when MTV re-ran the episodes in the 1980s. That the group made some supremely durable pop music sealed the deal even more so, and it’s arguably why we’re still listening to (and talking about and writing about) them more than a half-century after the conclusion of their initial run..

The Monkees – the TV show and the group (or “group,” in quotes as some killjoys might prefer) – were an unabashedly commercial enterprise, custom-created to exploit a particular corner of the pop culture marketplace. An argument can be made that it was all done with calculated cynicism, and that the Monkees existed – more than perhaps any other pop culture phenomenon – thanks to the inner workings of the entertainment industry machine.

That’s certainly the perspective that Tom Kemper brings to The Monkees: Made in Hollywood, a new volume positioned as “the behind-the-scenes story of the controversial made-for-TV rock band.” As a serious Monkees fan, I was predisposed toward reading the book, even in galley form, ahead of its target publication date of this coming June.

For a subject that’s so deeply immersed in the light, fun and breezy world of pop music and TV culture, one might have expected a book with a similar character, or at least with a character informed by that kind of thinking. Alas, The Monkees: Made in Hollywood reads more like a doctoral thesis. Kemper is an educator in higher learning, and the style of his prose reflects that.

As best as I could discern, there are no first-hand interviews informing the content of the book. It’s completely the product of the author’s astute and finely-tuned research and analysis. And that’s fine: Kemper clearly has a deep and nuanced understanding of the relevant era’s entertainment industry and how its various parts worked in concert (so to speak) to bring The Monkees to the viewing and listening public.

All – or, hey, most – writers have their particular tics. Mine – in case you hadn’t noticed – is the use of em dashes and tangential asides within them. Kemper’s is alliteration. It was mildly amusing the first few times I encountered it; after awhile it became somewhat distracting and tiresome, leaving me with the feeling that some of his ideas were bent into shape expressly to provide an opportunity to deliver a phrase such as “semiotic soiree of the Sunset Strip” or “potentially patronizing perspectives of Pop art.” Be advised that I didn’t break a sweat locating these examples; Kemper’s book serves up a bumper crop of phrases which help me make my point.

There aren’t any “behind the scenes” tales as such within the book, no newly-surfaced stories about the ways in which Micky, Peter, Davy and Mike interacted with (and bristled at, or didn’t bristle at) the suits who put the project together. The Monkees: Made in Hollywood simply isn’t that kind of book. What it is instead is a keenly incisive – and, at times, refreshingly objective and even-handed – analysis of the entertainment machinery of the era, and the manner in which radio, television and other areas worked together to manufacture (a more apt word in this context than, say, conjure) The Monkees seemingly out of thin air.

On that level it succeeds. For readers interested in a scholarly treatment of The Monkees phenomenon, I can think of no better endeavor than reading and fully absorbing Tom Kemper’s book. For those who simply love the music and/or TV show and/or individual and/or collective Monkees, reading The Monkees: Made in Hollywood may perhaps prove a potentially problematic proposition.

You may also enjoy: my interview with Micky Dolenz (“The Monkees was not a band,” he tells me.) And for a story that should figure into the Monkees’ history (but is wrongly overlooked) I’d offer this feature based on my candid conversations with Roger Hart. And there’s also my own in-depth look at the group’s semi-reunion in the mid ’70s as Dolenz, Jones, Boyce and Hart. Told ya I was a fan.