Sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
The Mamas and The Papas came onto the music scene at a time where popular music was making the transition from folk to rock and roll. Acoustic guitars and harmonies were giving way to the electric sound. John Phillips had worked his way through the music business from doo-wop to folk, and saw the changing tides. But the story of this band is a rocky one, one fraught with human failings. The documentary "Straight Shooter: The Definitive Story of a Quintessential '60s Super Group" is the content of this disc somewhat deceptively called "The Very Best of The Mamas and The Papas," since it isn't a "greatest hits" type of program. But the documentary is well worth watching; it is raw and unflinching in its look at this band and the people who made it and ultimately broke it. It's not always a pretty picture, and not especially flattering of the band members, though Mama Cass comes off better than the rest. Her unfortunate death due to heart failure (her purported death from choking on a ham sandwich was only a ruse to disguise a possible drug overdose, which turned out to be untrue as well) could have put the death knell on the band, and it nearly did. Now the band is reformed with some new members but it is those heady days of the '60s that we look at here.
Facts of the Case
A quick history is in order. John Phillips played in folk groups such as The Journeymen, looking very clean cut and sounding like a homegrown Peter Paul and Mary. He was 25, and married with two kids when teenager Michelle Gilliam came around as a groupie and hanger-on. The 16 year old Michelle caught his eye and it wasn't long before he was divorced. This was only the beginning of the relationship woes that would plague the band. After bringing in tenor Denny Doherty, they took a look at his friend Cass Elliot, a big girl with a big voice to match. A historic acid trip made the four friends. The group picked a random location on a map to go to recharge their creative juices, and went to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where they were soon joined by Cass, with a quart bottle of liquid LSD in tow. This kept them tripping for a couple more months, and many of the songs they would make famous came from that era. But their first big hit came after their return to the US, when Michelle decried New York's cold weather and wanted to go back to California. That led to Phillips writing "California Dreamin," and Michelle got half the royalties because she wrote the words dictated from John.
The song became a huge hit in California, where the band quickly went after writing the song. Almost overnight the group became superstars. Fame and money came quickly and just as quickly began causing problems. John's drug use multiplied and he became increasingly strung out. Michelle began an affair with Denny even though she knew Cass was deeply in love with him. Denny was slipping into alcoholism. The band kept going for some time despite these problems, but the Monterey Pop Festival in '69 was the end of the group, at least in its original incarnation. Only Cass Elliot seemed to prosper in the post Papas era, and was frequently seen on television, with reported political aspirations. July 29, 1974 put an end to all that with her death. It was 1982 before the band could reunite, with daughter Mackenzie Phillips (from television's One Day at a Time) and Spanky McFarlane (from TV's Our Gang) replacing missing members. The band continues to this day, though they have never reached the same level of fame. In 1998 The Mamas and The Papas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their six hit albums. Earlier this year John Phillips died of heart failure at age 66.
I was a fan of The Mamas and The Papas back in the '60s, before I got turned on to harder rock. I'm still a sucker for tight harmonies to this day. The group could sing, no doubt about it. I've known much of the sordid story of the band for many years, but this documentary filled in many gaps and even corrected a few wrong assumptions. All the surviving members of the band were on hand for interview footage, and I was happy and surprised to see how uncensored they were. That didn't always make the listening pleasant, as an undercurrent of backbiting and differing perspectives come through clearly, particularly between John and Michelle Phillips. They don't come off as particularly nice people, and at times they could be poster children for anti drug campaigns. A little too much acid, methinks. There is additional commentary from contemporaries such as Dick Clark, Paul Shaffer, and Mick Fleetwood, among others, which adds needed perspective.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is more to the program than "he said, she said," fortunately, but I was expecting more music than was provided. Several songs are performed, but only rarely do we hear an entire song without a narrator over the top. Considering the documentary is only 55 minutes, I'd have greatly appreciated more uninterrupted music, perhaps as a bonus feature. There are no bonus features.
The technical presentation is fine. It's not outstanding, but it's not terrible either. The picture quality ranges from sharp and clear interview footage shot recently to soft and grainy footage from the band's heyday. The sound is mostly mono in character, though with some use of the front mains. Mostly based on dialogue, it all comes through clearly, and even the vintage music is distortion free.
I wish there had been more music, and extra features of the classic hits. Then this really would have been "the very best of" the group. Despite that lack, the disc should be of great interest of Mamas and Papas fans, and those with an interest in the '60s in general.
The band itself has already suffered the penalties from their own human frailties. The disc gets a suspended sentence for the lack of extra content, thanks to the quality of the documentary.
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