For an all too brief 30-month period back in the mid to late ‘60s, the Mamas and Papas sold a slew of records and brought the laid-back Southern California lifestyle to the masses. The group’s popularity was largely due to the members’ distinctive personalities and vocal harmonies. Papa John Phillips arranged the music in a sophisticated yet simple way that evoked the sand and surf and fun in a manner that evoked Brian Wilson’s work with the Beach Boys—but with girls. And what dames. His wife, ex-model Michelle Phillips, had a sylph-like beauty and a silky-throated voice. Then there was Mama Cass Elliott, who proudly used her huge size to her advantage. She flaunted her fat outrageously when skinny-then models like Twiggy were in. Also, Elliott had a great set of pipes. She could belt out tunes stronger and louder than Sophie Tucker and Ethel Merman combined or sing as soft as a summer breeze.
Ex-folkie Denny Doherty had a beauty tenor voice that made everyone around him sound better. John could hold his own, plus he wrote the songs, pop hits that still get played on the radio today like “California Dreamin’”, “Monday, Monday”, and “I Saw Her Again”. The DVD has Phillips tell the story of an early meeting with Doherty. “Denny sat me down and said, ‘I want you to listen to this.’ It was the first Beatles album. And I said, ‘What do you want me to do.’ And he said, “I want you to write a lot of songs like these songs.’ That’s exactly what I did for the next three years,” said Phillips. The Mamas and Papas oeuvre does owe an obvious debt to the Liverpool lads, and the Los Angeles-based band even had a hit record with a winsome cover of Lennon/McCartney’s “I Call Your Name”.
However, this information is nothing new to Mamas and Papas fans and probably no surprise to most others. The Beatles influenced everybody, and the interview with Phillips dates back almost 20 years. That’s unavoidable (Phillips died in 2001) but unfortunately indicative of the DVD as a whole. There is little new here—some recent discussions with Doherty, Michelle Phillips, her and John’s daughter Chynna, and such—but no one says anything revelatory or even that interesting. The Mamas and the Papas story has been told better before by the principals themselves. Both John and Michelle wrote salacious, best-selling autobiographies. There are also two thick tomes on the band, one of which is an oral history. This DVD is tame. There’s no mention of John’s voracious drug appetites, Michelle’s sexual escapades, Elliott’s penchant for bad boy motorcycle riders, and Doherty’s incestuous relationships with both Michelle and Cass. The band’s comet-like rise and fall is a great story, but you won’t learn about it here.
Instead you get bits of the group’s best known songs and some relatively obscure material lip-synced on television, mostly from the program Hollywood Palace, interspersed with old and new interviews with band members and fellow travelers from back in the day like Scott McKenzie and Barry McGuire. The DVD, issued in honor of the 40th anniversary of the group’s first release in 1965, “California’ Dreamin’”, roughly follows the band’s brief chronology organized around 16 different tunes. This works well on some songs. For example, one learns that the whole band thought the song “Monday, Monday” was stupid and not even the guy who wrote the song, John, understood what the words meant. However the record company pressured them to release it and the song went to number one. Or an even better example can be found in the three-minute song that tells the history of the band and the California folk rock scene, “Crecque Alley”. The DVD includes archival pictures of the people discussed, like Roger McGuinn and John Sebastian, as the song plays in the background.
California Dreamin’: The Songs of the Mamas and Papas was originally made as a one-hour retrospective for public television, but the DVD contains over 30 minutes of bonus footage. Much of this is an interview with producer Lou Adler, who offers anecdotal information in a mild-mannered way. He has nothing negative to say about anyone or anything. There are also three additional songs included. Two are taken from a television tribute to Broadway songwriters Rodgers and Hart, “Sing for Your Supper” and “Here in My Arms”, which have never been commercially available before. The songs are a pleasant trifle, but not much more. The other tune features Cass Elliott taking a solo turn on Hollywood Palace with the Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil-penned “Make Your Own Kind of Music”. Elliott’s lip-syncing is right on as usual, but what makes this sequence mesmerizing is the introduction of Elliott by Mr. Show Biz himself, Sammy Davis, Jr. Elliott appears clearly moved by Davis’ introduction of her as the “the most fantastic lady of the Now sound”, but when he kisses her on the check, you can see her tremble with excitement. She goes weak in the knees for one priceless moment. Sadly, Elliott died of a heart attack in 1974. The DVD implicitly acknowledges that she was the most talented performer in the band and the only one to go on to a successful solo career. It’s a shame she’s unable to make her own kind of music anymore.