California Dreamin': The Songs of the Mamas & the Papas is a one-hour documentary prepared for public television, to be shown during pledge drives to get those baby boomers to call in and contribute. As its title and the TV-G rating that pops up right at the beginning suggest, this look at the group is more interested in the music than in wallowing in the backstage scandals much loved by, for example, VH1 Behind the Music, which spent a very different hour chronicling the Mamas & the Papas' career a few years earlier. Not that those elements are entirely absent. At one point, mention is made of the affair between Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty that rent the group, although it comes up in a musical context, as Phillips' husband John Phillips (in an interview conducted in 1986) says he took musical revenge by having the group sing songs like "I Saw Her Again" and "Straight Shooter" that alluded to the affair. John Phillips' drug problems (which postdated the group) do not come up, although, in an interview included as one of the bonuses on the DVD, producer Lou Adler regrets that Phillips "destructed." For the most part, however, things are on the up and up in this consideration, perhaps a bit too much, in fact. Michelle Phillips gets the lion's share of the commentary, which is provided entirely by the group members (albeit with very little involvement from Cass Elliot, who died in 1974), with additional remarks by such associates as Barry McGuire and John Sebastian, in oral history style, without a narrator. The group's story is told in a general way, with many pauses for performances, most of which are drawn from 1960s television programs such as The Hollywood Palace and The Ed Sullivan Show, and most of which find the group lip-syncing to their hits. A special highlight is the material drawn from a TV tribute to Rodgers & Hart that includes the group's unrecorded performance of "My Heart Stood Still." (A version of "Here in My Arms" is one of the bonuses.) Unfortunately, the ignoramus who put together the packaging for the DVD didn't know Hart's first name was Lorenz, and thus "Paul Hart" is credited no less than three times! (Cynthia Weil, whose name typically is misspelled "Weill," can be thankful she only has one song on the disc.) Fans of the Mamas & the Papas will welcome the rare footage and probably be relieved that, for once in an account of the group's career, the emphasis is on their songs.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann
feat: Barry McGuire