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Music Video Distributors presents
The Very Best of The Mamas & The Papas (1988)

"I guess over a period of, uh, three, four years, uh, I must have taken ten thousand Quaaludes out of that place."
- John Phillips

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: April 26, 2002

Stars: John Phillips, Cass Elliot, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty
Other Stars: Mackenzie Phillips, John Stewart, Glen Campbell, Joe Cocker, Dick Cavett, Mick Fleetwood, Spanky McFarlane
Director: Mark Hull

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:55m:54s
Release Date: March 20, 2001
UPC: 022891085829
Genre: music

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It is infectious: All the leaves are brown / And the sky is gray / I've been for a walk / On a winter's day. (Tell me you weren't singing along, and don't lie, now.) And it conjures up a certain moment in pop culture, the few productive and crazed years of the Mamas and the Papas, which aren't entirely captured on this DVD. The title is actually something of a misnomer, as this isn't any sort of greatest hits package; it's a little frustrating not to get to hear full renditions of the songs, and may send you scurrying to your CD player. (Or even your eight-track player.) Rather, this is a documentary look at the rise and fall of the band, in a tried and true fashion reminiscent of VH-1's Behind the Music. And the title under which it's listed doesn't even match up with what's on the disc, where it's called The Mamas and the Papas: Straight Shooter.

This documentary is particularly good with the early years, situating the band in its place and time: the Mamas and the Papas are especially notable for their fusion of tight vocal harmonies of groups like the Hi-Los with the boom in folk music, and constituted the full-throated American response to the British invasion. John Phillips is the creative genius behind the band, and we see his formative days in military school, his rebellion, his first wife; his folk group, the Journeymen, headlined one time when their opening act was a young fellow name of Bob Dylan.

The story of the band is familiar enough now to fans of the era: John leaves his wife and two kids for Michelle, who was sixteen at the time. (One of John's daughters, Mackenzie, went on to star in One Day at a Time.) They ask Denny to join the group, and then Cass. Denny and Michelle have an affair, devastating both John, who is now married to Michelle, and Cass, whose longtime love for Denny has gone unrequited. If not the stuff of tragedy, the story achieves at least the level of soap opera, but you've got to be pretty vigilant to follow along here.

The basic facts are presented, but this is hardly a model bit of journalism. There are great odd gaps in the narrative, and facts that just fly by—for instance, at one point John Phillips says that "the Broadway show was a complete flop," and I know I was wondering: what Broadway show? But anecdotally, it's pretty strong, with extensive interview footage with the three surviving original band members. (The story of Cass choking on a ham sandwich is rehashed here, despite it being a little dubious, factually. Its persistence is the last and meanest in what must have been a long line of fat jokes.) The mind-blowing quantities of drugs jump out—before recording their first songs, the quartet retreated to the Virgin Islands with a mother lode of LSD, and didn't return to the U.S. until all the acid had been dropped, months later. None of them wanted to record Monday, Monday, which they thought was a stupid, throwaway tune; it went on to be their biggest hit. They proudly report that they were the first band to travel via Lear jet.

And there is of course the dark time: Michelle gets booted from the band, and is then welcomed back. They promise Ed Sullivan they're not breaking up, and then they do. Some of the talent is towering—Cass Elliott's voice is truly magnificent, before, during and after her stint with the band, but best of all here is John's solo rendition of California Dreamin', just him and his guitar, sung after he's related the tale of the song's composition. (He's cut away from after the first verse, but his voice continues under interview footage with Denny and Michelle, and it's actually rather haunting.)

There's an upbeat ending that rings a little false, with John Phillips back in the studio, in 1987, cutting a new record that doesn't sound very good at all. He's replaced all the other band members, and has a huge chorus singing with him—it includes his daughter Mackenzie, and David Letterman bandleader Paul Schaffer. (This documentary was made in 1988, and seems to be something of a puff piece for John's new album; it also features all the interviewees in the most unfortunate fashions of that time.) Phillips is presented with an award from ASCAP, citing California Dreamin' as one of the most played songs of that year, and everybody joins in on a sing-a-long, which we're supposed to believe is spontaneous, but seems pretty clearly designed for the film crew. Schaffer plays piano, and even in this Kumbaya-style rendition, it's a great and haunting song.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Much of the interview footage seems to be shot on video, and the resolution is sometimes a little weak. There's lots of terrific archival footage, of the band performing in its various configurations. Blacks and color levels are a little sketchy.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The principal reason to check out this disc is to listen to the music, and it sounds nicely balanced and warm in the Dolby mix. The songs routinely continue under the interview footage and help to mask hiss, but there's a good bit of it on the soundtrack still.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Legends of Country; George Jones: Same Old Me; The Outlaws
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The only extras here aren't trailers, exactly, but television commercials for other titles on the same label now available on DVD. (A couple of them even helpfully come with toll-free numbers, if you just need to order that George Jones disc rightthisminute.)

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

This is hardly an exhaustive look at the career of the band, or even much of a showcase for their music. Still, it works as both a cautionary tale about the excesses of success and as a chance to hear some familiar songs again; it may not be riveting, but I challenge you to watch it and not come away humming a few bars of California Dreamin'.


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