If you are not already a believer in the brilliance of The Mamas and The Papas’ music, or the genius of head Papa John Phillips, Straight Shooter is not exactly going to convince you otherwise. Or at least, it doesn’t make its case well.
Mostly comprised of a string of first person interviews shot during the late ’80s with the then three surviving members of the group (Michelle Phillips is the only one left, now, in 2008) and some of their fellow travelers, the program suffers from over chattiness and navel gazing, always at the expense of group’s soaring, era defining music. Precious little of it is heard throughout, and generally it’s just snippets of the same few songs played over and over again in the background. A neophyte wandering across this DVD might be forgiven for wondering what the hubbub about The Mamas and The Papas was ever about.
But this program is not for them. Though ostensibly the definitive, generalist biography of the group (at least per the DVD cover), Straight Shooter actually seems to assume a high level of familiarity with both the music and the story of the band – its gestation, its rapid rise and fall, its lasting impact – from its audience. It’s for the longtime, nostalgia-fueled fan, the boomer who lived through and with the music during the ’60s. And with so much primary reliance on personal reminiscence and anecdote, the story of the band emerges only in fits and starts.
This is not necessarily a bad thing – though they often contradict one another, from basic stuff like dates to more personal matters involving the constant personal turmoil that always threatened to pull the band apart, the interviews with John Phillips, Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty (none ever done together) do fascinate, especially when they veer from the official record. But problem is, no “official” record is ever established in Straight Shooter.
There is no sort of overarching narration (except briefly at the beginning, but it inexplicably vanishes) that ties everything together, that puts all the various stories in their proper context. There’s no real insight, no attempt to connect the dots, to see the bigger picture, to slot The Mamas and The Papas into their proper place in the canon, to see why they mattered.
And make no mistake, they did matter – and still do. With the exception of the Beach Boys, you could make a strong case that The Mamas and the Papas were the most significant American pop group of the mid-’60s, and one of the real viable responses to the Beatles-led British invasion that was then overrunning America. Their laid back, folk tinged sunshine pop ushered in the Summer of Love sound that would crest in the years after their debut in 1966. And yet, they were also a throwback, a group that had as many feet in the past as they had in the present.
John Phillips was a member of various vocal groups during the ’50s and early ’60s, and then had a tour through the early New York folk scene, playing in a trio called the Journeymen. This is the group that would eventually morph into The Mamas and The Papas after his second wife, Michelle, joined him and they recruited Denny Doherty on vocals. After the final missing piece, and secret weapon of the group, Mama Cass Elliot (who had a background in vocal groups, as well as musical theater) was inducted after a famous stay in St. Thomas (immortalized in the autobiographical/self-mythologizing song “Creeque Alley”), the band began a run that was as brilliant as it was short-lived.
They honed a sound that was as forward thinking as it was anachronistic, that was timely and timeless. Superficially, they were scattershot, working within no one distinctive genre or sound. They veered between glorious sunny pop (“I Saw Her Again”), to folksy melancholic ballads (“California Dreamin’), to ’50s vocal standards (“Dedicated to the One I Love”), to big blowzy Tin Pan Alley-esque show stoppers (“Words of Love”). What united all these songs, though, and what made The Mamas and The Papas music distinctive and unforgettable, were the celestial four part harmonies of the group, which were brought out in full force by the elaborate arrangements of John Phillips.
A studio wizard almost on par with Brian Wilson, Phillips recording sessions for the group’s greatest songs were nearly unprecedented for the time – often 16 tracks deep, complex, dense and grueling to record. And yet, they sound so effortless – something so soaring and angelic can’t be so arduous, so taxing, can it? The Mamas and the Papas were one of those rare convergences in music where everything fell exactly into its right place, everything worked perfectly, and the result was a canon of songs that will remain immortal, even though now we’ve taken them for granted in their music’s ubiquity.
But again, you’ll be hard pressed to figure any of this from just watching Straight Shooter. It’s a shame. Although the DVD case promises performance footage, there’s precious little to be found here. There are a few snippets of them on television programs, or doing promotional films, but never complete songs. I don’t know – maybe they couldn’t get the rights for total footage, but inclusion of complete songs would have gone a long way to punctuating the program, and getting to the heart of what it’s supposed to be all about – “the music, man!”
And the bonus content is no great shakes, either. It’s all just more interviews, though a good chunk of them are extensions of interviews featured in the main program, and actually fill in a lot of key details. I really don’t know the thinking that went into keeping these out of the main film, except that at 73 minutes, it had probably been cut for television. Still, if they had gone back and inserted these for the DVD release, it would have cleared up a good deal of the confusion and vagueness surrounding several key issues, including Michelle’s temporary ouster from the band following affairs with both band mate Denny Doherty and then Gene Clark of the Byrds, and the legendary trip to St. Thomas where the group came together.
One fun fact I learned: apparently, John Phillips was hesitant about letting Cass join the group –Phillips insists it was purely due to her vocal range, she just couldn’t hit the notes he needed. Well, one day, Cass was walking down Creeque Alley and was hit on the head by an errant metal heating coil. After she recovered, she could suddenly hit all the notes Phillips needed and he had no choice but to let her join. Apocryphal or not. That’s a great story.
But again, none of these features (there’re three, totaling about an additional hour) ultimately solve problems of the Straight Shooter, and we’re left with a alleged definitive biography which is far from definitive or comprehensive, and is probably only enthusiasts and music historians, maybe. A shame – The Mamas and The Papas deserve the gold star treatment, if any group ever did.