Thursday, 27 April 2017

California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas by Penelope Bagieu Review


Penelope Bagieu’s California Dreamin’ is a biographical comic about the early life of Ellen Cohen aka Cass Elliot of ‘60s group The Mamas and the Papas. It’s not a bad read but it definitely has its flaws. 

Cass’s life turns out to be fairly ordinary which unfortunately doesn’t make for the most riveting of stories. She wants to be famous, goes to New York and hangs out with artists who recognise her amazing voice. Eventually she becomes friends with musician Denny Doherty who joined a folk trio called The Journeymen which, when Cass joined them, would become The Mamas and the Papas. 

It was interesting to note that Cass came up with the call and answer song structure of their most famous tune, California Dreamin’, which is definitely what made it a hit. But it’s also Cass’s powerful vocals in the answer part that elevated that song and made it so good. 

I wonder why Bagieu chose to tell the story of Cass’s life up to the age of 24 though (when California Dreamin’ became a hit)? Maybe the book is meant to be inspiration for girls who don’t conform to societal beauty standards to show them that raw talent and personality can carry you to the top regardless of your looks? 

Except the whole book is more of a downer really. Bagieu’s portrait is of a girl who secretly wants to fit in, who always falls for men who don’t love her back (probably in large part due to her being 300 lbs, let’s be real) and who struggles with her weight constantly. What’s left out of the book is even more tragic - maybe that’s why it wasn’t included? She does well as a solo performer but her weight makes her depressed, she starts doing heroin and dies of heart failure in her sleep aged 32. 

I also didn’t love Bagieu’s illustration style in this book. It’s drawn with sketchy, pencil drawings throughout and, while you can clearly see the skill behind it, the finishes look messy and rushed. Maybe that’s the point, to mirror her subject with her style? Cass wasn’t a knockout either but she had talent, just like Bagieu’s art here is underwhelming though undeniably artful. I know having read her previous comics that she isn’t this sloppy usually. 

California Dreamin’ is a sometimes-enthralling and somewhat informative read but a lot of it feels drawn out and unremarkable because the material is lacking. I thought it was an ok comic but I was a bit disappointed and I wouldn’t say it’s a must-read for anyone even for Cass Elliot fans who probably know all this already and in more detail anyway.

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