Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  John Phillips, Michelle Phillips, Denny Doherty
Director:  Mark Hall
Audio:  Dolby Stereo
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  SRO Entertainment
Features:  Extra interviews
Length:  75 Minutes
Release Date:  January 29, 2008

“All the leaves are brown…”


Film ***

Near the end of Straight Shooter, which was made in 1988, John Phillips is a happy man.  He had co-penned the Beach Boys’ big comeback hit “Kokomo”, and it had gone to number one.  It was twenty years after his first number one, “Monday, Monday”.  He joked that in another twenty years, he would be due for his third.

Sadly, it is now twenty years later, and Papa John is no longer with us.  For that matter, neither is Denny Doherty.  Cass Elliott had long since left our world.  Now, Michelle Phillips is the last living testament to one of the 60s’ greatest groups.

The Mamas and the Papas simply created magic behind a microphone.  Their infectious tunes, their impeccable harmonies, their style, and their look helped take back a bit of American musical territory that, at the time, had been dominated by the British for far too long.  The documentary focuses on John Phillips, and rightly so, as it was his genius for arrangement and songwriting that really laid the foundation for this Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band.

Straight Shooter lets John, Michelle and Denny tell their story in their own words.  It’s a fascinating trip through the mid to late 1960s, and it’s a story filled with laughter, love, heartbreak, addiction, and of course, music.  Wonderful, wonderful music.

John met Michelle when he was 25 and she was 16.  Though he was already married, he fell quickly for the sunny California beauty, and soon they would be inseparable in life and in music.  The addition of Denny Doherty from a rival folk band lent a truly superb male voice to the mix.  And when Denny suggested his friend Cass Elliott, another amazing voice was added, and the formula was complete.

John turned Michelle’s longing for the West Coast into “California Dreamin’”, and the rest was history.  The Mamas and the Papas had an unmistakable sound, and radio and television loved them.  John was the creative force, and proved his mettle by penning a tune no one else in the band liked.  That tune was “Monday, Monday”.  It was their first and only number one.

But the magic, though very potent, was to be short-lived.  Michelle would have an affair with Denny, and later jilt both him and John for a member of The Byrds, leaving the others to ceremoniously kick her out of the group.  Cass was in love with Denny herself, and was inconsolable over Michelle’s betrayal.  Outside pressures would eventually force Michelle back in, but it wouldn’t last.  The group disbanded, and though forced back together contractually for one final album, their ship had already sailed.

Cass found success as a solo artist with her larger-than-life persona and beautiful, powerful voice, but her untimely death put an end to it far too soon.  In the years that followed, John would indulge in harder and harder drugs, leaving him unable to write, perform, or even function as a human being.  Thankfully, he eventually sought help, otherwise there’s no doubt he would have been just another casualty of the rock and roll lifestyle.  My only minor complaint about this documentary is the amount of time spent on John's drug problem, which needed to be dealt with in an honest film, but possibly not to this extreme.

What I liked best about Straight Shooter is all the vintage footage of the group in their prime, on stage, on television, and even helming John’s dream project of the Monterey Pop Festival.  Watch them singing “Twelve Thirty” as Denny and Cass smile, mug, and make little jokes with each other as they perform.  This was a band having the time of their lives doing what they loved.  If only that kind of sentiment could last forever.

It doesn’t, but thanks to John, Michelle, Denny and Cass, a mark was left on the world of music that lingers to this day.  I love this group, and Straight Shooter is a shining testament to how everything can sometimes go so right with a band.  And then, sometimes, so wrong as well.

BONUS NOTE:  At the end of the documentary, we see John re-launching The Mamas and the Papas with new members, including Spanky McFarlane of Spanky and Our Gang.  And he has just been given an ASCAP award for “California Dreamin’”, which causes his gathering friends to break into the song impromptu, with Paul Shaffer pounding out the tune on the piano.  It’s one of the most joyous moments I’ve seen on screen in quite some time.

Video **

This is an average videotape based transfer from the 80s, and looks about like you would expect; a bit soft, a bit unnatural in the color department from time to time, and other tape induced limitations.  There’s old film footage as well, which shows its age, but no worse than you would fear.

Audio **

The stereo mix is fine, and the songs come across really well, but it occurs to me…if ever there was a band screaming out for good 5.1 remixes, it’s The Mamas and the Papas and their glorious harmonies.

Features **

There is extra interview footage with each of the group’s (then) surviving members.


Straight Shooter is an intimate look at an American classic, especially the man who made it all possible.  John, Denny, Cass…the world will always miss you.

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