By Ken Tucker
Updated February 05, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST
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  • VH1
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The winning formula that VH1 has hit upon for the success of its Behind the Music is nostalgia laced with scandal. Over the course of the series we have, for example:

—Heard inside stories of how Fleetwood ac created their great ’70s music, even as Mick Fleetwood confided that ”my whole thing was cocaine.”

—Pondered former teenybopper idol Leif Garrett for the first time in years — or perhaps the first time ever — as he confessed to us his three-year addiction to heroin and had a teary reunion with a former friend left crippled by the car accident a drunk Garrett got them into two decades ago.

—Learned that for Harry Wayne Casey — KC of KC and the Sunshine Band — indelible hits like ”Shake Your Booty” and ”I’m Your Boogie Man” weren’t enough; no, he had to have, as he so casually admits, ”a few grand mal seizures” brought on by drugs and alcohol before becoming the wiser if puffier man he is today.

The juiciest Behind the Musics may provide some comfort to adults who grew up with the music of the show’s subjects, because its official message is, Once upon a time you wanted to be like your heroes; now aren’t you glad you settled down and went to college, got that mortgage, had those kids? Aren’t you glad you didn’t decide to chuck it all in high school and join Leif Garrett’s backup band?

Now, granted, there have been more inspiring Behind the Musics; the most popular edition, featuring Shania Twain, was an uplifting, irony-free hour that presented the country thrush as a testament to overcoming poverty-rooted odds — she single-handedly brought up her younger siblings after her parents’ death. But Shania aside, the finest (i.e., most frank and morally appalling) Behind the Music episode, about the Mamas and the Papas, probably caused existential crises among a sizable number of 40-year-olds when it first aired Jan. 11, 1998. Recall the beautiful music made by the quartet of Papa John Phillips, Mama Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty, and Michelle Phillips (refresher snippets of songs such as ”California Dreamin”’ and the ineffably gorgeous, mean-spirited ”I Saw Her Again” ran over the interview footage). Now then, what did we learn? That you could consume all sorts of drugs and booze (as John and Denny did) and still be romantic catnip for Michelle, certainly the most beautiful woman rock &amp roll yielded in the ’60s. Really, it would probably be worth aging into a saggy, babbling hack — as John and Denny both now seem to be — if one could have spent a few nights canoodling with Michelle in her swivel-hippied prime.

In this sense, Behind the Music is television completely at odds with the just-say-no philosophy of our official public culture of the past 20 years. Unlike VH1’s usual mix of harmless Bonnie Raitt and Sugar Ray videos, BTM stokes the fantasy life of generations old and new — implanting the idea that, hey, you know, you can inhale, have a great time, detox, and still be at least cable-television-level famous.

This week, Behind the Music offers ”The Day the Music Died,” a 40th-anniversary acknowledgment of the Feb. 3, 1959, plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson — the Big Bopper. It’s a negligible addition to the series because it uncovers no new information, includes the umpteenth interview with Waylon Jennings about how he almost got on the fatal plane, and insists that we listen to parts of Don McLean’s eternally insipid ”American Pie” again. In general, this documentary is obliged to remain so reverent that it lacks the furtive energy that characterizes the best Behind the Musics.

The popularity of BTM has also spawned those recent black-and-white VH1 ”Go Behind the Music” commercials in which rock royalty like Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Pete Townshend gab for a few seconds about defining moments in their lives. Even here — with the notable exceptions of spots featuring Twain and Jewel, who come across as merely nakedly ambitious — dissolution dominates. We learn, for instance, that we would have had no ”Satisfaction” had a nodding-off Keith not saved a tape that contained the song’s opening riff plus ”40 minutes of me snoring.” Hearing all this sometimes makes me think I’d be a far better TV critic if only I’d followed my youthful urges, hitchhiked out to L.A., and looked up Elizabeth Montgomery when I was a kid, and cajoled her into spending a bewitchingly decadent weekend with me all those years ago. B+

VH1 Behind the Music

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