By Allison Johnelle Boron
It's a warm, sunny day in mid-1960s Los Angeles. Two young men are trotting down a street, kicking a few rocks and bouncing ideas off each other. One starts snapping his fingers and imitating the sound of a high-hat. The other begins tunefully narrating their movements: “Here we come, walking down the street…”
The two men are Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, Hollywood’s hottest songwriting duo, who have just been hired to compose music for a new television project about four zany kids in a band called The Monkees.
“We kind of had a mandate that this was the first time American audiences were seeing long-haired hippie types on prime time television,” says Bobby Hart, “so we had to portray them as non-threatening. They didn’t want to put anybody down, and it was all about the music.”
Over the next couple of years, the pair became one of the driving forces behind the unprecedented phenomenon, contributing hits to nearly every album by the made-for-TV band. Not to mention giving the group its now-ubiquitous theme song and elevating them into music history.
But who are Boyce & Hart? Until recently, their names have meant little more than a subscript under songs like “Last Train to Clarksville” to most people. That, however, is changing. Big time.
A new documentary, "Boyce & Hart: The Guys Who Wrote 'Em," is lifting the veil of mystery surrounding the enigmatic songwriting team and boosting awareness of these guys-about-town who treated 1960s Southern California like their personal playground, while simultaneously crafting the era’s signature sound.
“Bobby and Tommy were The Monkees,” says Rachel Lichtman, the documentary’s director. “They were cute guys who lived together in L.A., hit on girls, and wrote songs together. What The Monkees were on television is exactly what Boyce & Hart were in real life — that camaraderie and that sound of camaraderie in their music.”
In the spirit of finally shining a well-deserved spotlight on the duo, Lichtman and Monkees historian Andrew Sandoval joined forces to begin work on a documentary three years ago. From the start, it was clear that the project would have a different, more carefully- and lovingly-crafted, genesis than similar films.
But that sentiment also meant that there would be no big-budget production houses footing the bill. Even the cost of creating this tribute to one of the ‘60s most iconic songwriting teams would become a grassroots effort.
Aside from a small crowd-sourced drive at the beginning of the project, and a recent IndieGoGo campaign that helped offset a portion of the footage and licensing costs, expenses have oftentimes been paid out-of-pocket. And, although contributions have poured in from fans all over the world, the fundraising has still left the creators short of their goal.
Despite the lack of a bottom line, Lichtman and Sandoval continued to bandy about the idea.
“I ran into Bobby Hart at the post office. Andrew and I had been talking about the documentary a few weeks before and when I saw [Hart], I asked him if he ever thought about doing a feature-length film about Boyce & Hart.”
“I had a number of offers and bites over the years about doing a documentary,” says Hart. “[The companies] were so cookie cutter, and they never did seem right. When Andrew and Rachel came to me, I could see this was not that. This was two fans that had been fans for a long time.”
Hart readily opened his home and vast archives of materials, including 16mm and 8mm film reels that hadn’t been touched in more than 40 years. Over two weeks of screening them, Sandoval and Lichtman discovered that they’d stumbled into a treasure trove of gorgeous, color footage from Los Angeles in the 1960s, both shot by and starring Boyce & Hart.
The majority of the footage is used in the film, which is set entirely within the period it documents. There are no talking heads, no current shots of old stomping grounds, and absolutely nothing to pull the viewer out of the absolute time-trip with a fantastic pair of tour guides. The only interviews come in the disembodied voices of Micky Dolenz, Michael Nesmith, Peter Tork, Keith Allison, Kim Fowley, and Tommy Boyce. Though Bobby Hart narrates, he appears onscreen only as a ultra-hip, ruggedly handsome fella only a few decades into his now-storied life.
“What I’ve seen in films and documentaries about the ‘60s is the same stock footage of hippies, and that is not the ‘60s I think is groovy,” says Lichtman. “I think Bobby and Tommy running around LA in jeans is groovy. It’s a perspective of that time period that really hasn’t been seen before.”
Not only are cuts of the footage unique, some are downright musical holy grails. Video from a promotional appearance prior to the premiere of "The Monkees"television show that has the band performing “Clarksville” on a train weaving around Southern California — thought to have been lost for decades — is showcased in all its glory. So is a clip from a Laurel Canyon “Pleasure Faire” starring Fowley, and “Miss Pamela” DeBarres and “Miss Lucy” of the GTOs. DeBarres even wrote about being filmed by Boyce & Hart in one of her books, but had never seen the tape until Lichtman presented her with a copy for her birthday.
“It’s that kind of footage that really puts Bobby and Tommy in context,” explains Lichtman. “When you see all these L.A. luminaries, these hip people, and there’s Bobby and Tommy with them. I don’t think anything can give more credibility than them being there. It’s a side of them that most people don’t know.”
Add that to ultra rare television appearances (Boyce made a point to always ask for a copy of any show on which they appeared; in some cases, these may be the only copies still in existence), and unheard demos by both Boyce and Hart, and some of those other guys they made famous. The Monkees, yes, but also ... not the Monkees.
Migrating from California to New York’s Brill Building and back to the west coast in the early 1960s, Boyce & Hart, both separately and together, composed smash tunes for artists like Fats Domino (Boyce wrote “Be My Guest”), Jay and the Americans (“Come a Little Bit Closer”), and Little Anthony and the Imperials (Hart’s “Hurts So Bad”). And I guarantee you never knew they wrote the theme for the soap opera series "Days Of Our Lives."
“We just saw ourselves as hired guns,” says Hart. “We just wanted to turn out what people wanted and keep our pulse on the record-buying public. We were short order cooks in that kind of way. When we’d write for specific groups. we would write something that sounded in our heads like something they’d like to record, whether it was Herman’s Hermits or Gary Lewis and the Playboys, or other artists.
“We became much wider known once The Monkees hit, and we were in the fan mags. Even Micky Dolenz, several months after we began working with him, came into the studio and said, ‘Wow, I had no idea you guys had all these hits or wrote songs before us’,” Hart laughs.
Appropriately situated smack-dab in the middle of the decade, The Monkees' project was a major game-changer, and ensured Boyce & Hart’s well-deserved legacy.
“The whole vibe and energy of that project was because it was spearheaded by young hip guys like [creators /producers/directors] Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, and Tommy and Bobby,” says Rachel Lichtman. “They were a little older, a little wiser and had been around the block a few times, and had lived the life.”
But, for Lichtman, who began working with The Monkees' tours in 2011, creating stunning visual displays of vintage photographs, effects and videos, a goal of the documentary was to broaden the public’s view of Boyce & Hart beyond the “Pre-Fab Four.”
“[The Boyce & Hart story] was more about songwriting and being a songwriter in the 1960s, and how that changed from the early to late '60s,” she says. “Bobby and Tommy were really a bridge between the two eras. These two guys, who had been basically living on the Sunset Strip, absorbing the sights, sounds, and smells of the all the changes happening in the air and the music, the way that was shifting. They were able to spit it back out in a way they interpreted.”
With such massive success, including a meteoric rise post-Monkees that included tours, appearances on television shows ("I Dream of Jeannie" and "Bewitched") and hits of their own (“I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonight”), it was shocking that, at the height of their fame, Boyce inexplicably called it quits and ended the partnership.
“It’s hard to explain and understand, even in the film, why, at the peak of our success, Tommy just decided that he didn’t want to do it anymore,” says Hart. “It kind of floored me. It was astounding that we had all these opportunities we worked so hard to create and just when it was really taking off, He didn’t want do it anymore. When you’re one member of a duo and one person quits, it’s kind of over.”
Though they would reunite sparingly over the next several decades, most notably for a tour with Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones as Dolenz, Jones, Boyce & Hart (“The Guys Who Wrote 'Em and The Guys Who Sang 'Em”), they largely soldiered on separately. Hart, with a new partner, contributed songs to "The Partridge Family," and would garner Grammy, Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.
Though Boyce and Hart remained friends, any hope of a reunion was destroyed when, in 1994, Tommy Boyce, encumbered by illness, took his own life. He was only 55 years old. The scene-stealing ball of fire who everyone agrees was “born to be a star” was gone.
Boyce would have reveled in the documentary and the overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception it’s received by fans, most notably at the New Jersey Monkees Convention in March, Hart says.
“Tommy would have been on Cloud Nine,” he says. “It’s just a shame that we couldn’t have shared the film and the convention with him. He would have been over the top, just soaking it up. That was him. He would love to be around the fans and was such a pleaser in that way. He would have loved the respect coming back around at this late date.”
On Aug. 7, 2014, "Boyce & Hart: The Guys Who Wrote 'Em," will celebrate its West Coast premiere at the Don’t Knock the Rock Film and Music Festival; Hart and Allison are scheduled to attend the event. Lichtman and Sandoval remain optimistic that a widespread distribution deal could fall into place later this year, with the the hopes that fans everywhere will have the opportunity to get their own in-depth look at the dynamic duo.
“Even the hugest Monkees or Boyce & Hart fan is going to come away with knowledge and having seen unseen photos and films,” says Lichtman. “A completist hasn’t seen 85 percent of this film. But it’s also acceptable to the layman. It has an appeal for everybody. It’s a film made by fans and cultural historians. We know the kind of film we would like to see, and this is that kind of film.”
Hart is planning to release his autobiography by the end of the 2014 and contributing to a new musical featuring Boyce & Hart’s music. He attributes the timing of the documentary to “a higher power I’m not capable of.”
“Like I said, I had other opportunities to do a film over the years,” he says. “These things happen organically. Sometimes the universe plans things better than I could.” GM