07/25/05
Reviews by - Lindsay Planer

As we do from time to time, this week we're spinning feasts for both the eyes and ears. Among the recent arrivals in the music DVD section of your favorite multi-media haunt are titles from definitive documentaries on The Mamas & Papas and John Denver, a vintage concert from Cat Stevens as well as a rare look and listen at Detroit's one and only MC5.


John Denver -- A Song's Best Friend: John Denver Remembered (Sony/BMG)

Until now, there hasn't been a decent biopic for fans of folkie singer/songwriter John Denver. This roughly hour-long feature is an excellent retrospective and the perfect entrée for neophyte enthusiasts interested not only in Denver's prolific career, but his equally impressive efforts on behalf of environmental and wildlife conservation. The majority of reminiscences are from those who knew Denver the best, including his first wife -- who was the namesake of the ballad "Annie's Song" -- as well as his manager Hal Thau and record producer Milt Okun. Perhaps the most heartfelt tribute comes from Jean Michel Cousteau, the son of international explorer Jacques Cousteau, who was the recipient of Denver's song "Calypso."

Without question, the heart and soul of A Song's Best Friend is the music itself. In addition to clips taken from live shows, the program highlights a host of Denver's television appearances from the 1970s and '80s. While excerpts are scattered throughout, unedited performances of "Leaving On A Jet Plane" (Red Rocks Amphitheatre 1973), "Rocky Mountain High" (John Denver Show TV special 1974) and "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" (Red Rocks Amphitheatre 1982) are just a few of the extras.

The Mamas & The Papas -- California Dreamin': The Songs of The Mamas and The Papas (Hip-O/UMe)

PBS first aired California Dreamin': The Songs Of The Mamas & The Papas as an hour-long special during their Spring '05 pledge drive. For this DVD, the contents have been significantly upgraded with more than a half an hour of additional performances and TV clips. The documentary presents a music-intensive celebration of the vocal quartet's 40 th Anniversary. Inside is an even-handed historical overview that is nothing short of the final word on the group's history. Surviving band members Michelle Phillips and Denny Doherty provide newly gathered insight along side other key participants in the mid 1960s folk/rock scene. Luminaries such as Lovin' Spoonful leader John Sebastian and New Christy Minstrel and Mamas & Papas confidant Barry McGuire provide their respective takes, as well as personal insight into both the combo's music and whirlwind ascent to the rarified realm of becoming America's "Royal Family Of Pop."

There is plenty of archival footage featuring quotes and quips from leader and chief songwriter John Phillips and the ubiquitous Cass Elliot. But the real star is the timeless music the combo packed into their all-too-brief existence from 1965 to 1968. The best of the lot are Phillips' stunning modernization of pop standards "My Heart Stood Still," "Sing For Your Supper," and "Here In My Arms," from their rarely seen guest appearance on the 1967 Rodgers & Hart Today television special. There is also an insightful and extended 'bonus' conversation with Mamas & Papas studio producer Lou Adler. He gives plenty of insight as to the true extent of the foursome's legacy and John Phillip's criminally underrated skills as an arranger, whose immense talents were never fully appreciated during his lifetime.

Cat Stevens -- Majikat: Earth Tour 1976 (Eagle Rock Entertainment/Eagle Vision)

Before converting to Islam and adopting the name Yusuf Islam, Cat Stevens was one of the most successful singer/songwriters of the 1970s. He amassed record sales that exceeded 50 million copies worldwide, scoring in excess of a dozen Top 40 hits and seven Top 10 albums between 1971 and 1977. His final North American concert excursion was dubbed the "Majikat: Earth Tour" and involved Stevens' own superlative backing band as well as a troupe of live magicians and an otherwise elaborate stage presentation. For those who might have missed out the first time around, this full-length concert acts as a prime career overview and an extraordinary glimpse of Stevens at the peak of his craft. Perhaps equally important is that this performance was captured mere months before he would forsake pop music and shun celebrity in search of inner peace. Stevens vacillates between acoustic guitar and piano on classics including "The Wind," "Moonshadow," "Where Do The Children Play," his rocking update of Sam Cooke's "Another Saturday Night," "Hard Headed Women," "Tuesday’s Dead," "Oh Very Young," "The Hurt," "Two Fine People," "Father & Son," and "Peace Train".

There are also deeper album cuts such as "Sad Lisa," "Miles From Nowhere," "Fill My Eyes," and "Lady D’Arbanville," the latter primarily a hit in the U.K. Scattered throughout is the visually stimulating prestidigitation of the Majikats and a neat little film accompanying the tune "Banapple Gas." Audiophiles will also get plenty of bang for their buck as the concert audio is presented in both a standard stereo mix as well as a 5.1 Surround Sound that puts the listener/viewer front row and center. Not enough? There is an additional half-hour of supplementary 'Special Features' that equal the main event. For starters is "Wild World," which was the encore from the Majikat show, vintage BBC archival footage of "If I Laugh" and "Maybe You're Right," promo films for "Moonshadow" and "Father & Son," plus a three-part interview with the artist himself. Without exception, enthusiasts of Cat Stevens should avail themselves of the Majikat: Earth Tour 1976 .

MC5 -- Kick Out the Jams (Music Video Distributors)

One of the more outspoken and 'in your face' groups to surface during the formative heavy metal era was the Motor City Five aka MC5. Their music was a potent blend of aggressive rock and roll with strains of soul, blues and a heaping helping of attitude. As precious little footage of the 5 exists, this short film, which clocks in at just over a half an hour, is manna for the proto-punk masses. While Kick Out The Jams (2005) includes the sights and sounds of the MC5 in performance, director Cary Loren has amassed a fast-paced and high energy compilation of vintage home-movie style video backed by some of the quintet's most memorable music -- presented in both stereo and 5.1 Surround. "Ramblin' Rose," "I Want You Right Now," "Starship," "Motor City Is Burning," and of course the title track "Kick Out The Jams," are but a few of the essential tracks that pulsate, flutter and vibrate behind the psychotropic -- if not at times hallucinogenic -- visual feast.

Taken as a whole, it is little wonder Norman Mailer referred to the MC5 adventure as the "electro-mechanical climax of the age." As an added goodie, viewers can avail themselves of an interview circa 2003 with John Sinclair. He was not only the 5's one-time manager, but also a world-renowned political activist, poet, performer, music journalist, former Professor of Blues History at Wayne State University in Detroit and ex-Chairman of the White Panther Party. Fans wishing for a live concert or overview of the band will have to keep waiting. However, this brief yet effective experimental movie recalls all the reasons that the MC5 were at the forefront of the revolution to begin with.


Lindsay Planer is a freelance journalist and technical producer at WBT AM/FM in Charlotte, NC. He is a regular contributor to All Music Guide, CrutchfieldAdvisor.com and Gaston Gazette. Comments and questions can be sent to <asthediscspins@earthlink.net>.


 

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