BOOTLEG FILES 564: “John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas” (1975 TV special).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Music and performance rights clearance issues.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is no great tragedy if Santa keeps this in his sled.
In 1975, John Denver was at the top of the music charts with his loose-limbed pop-folk music. Buoyed by his recording success, he ventured into television through a number of guest shots and specials, and his happy, non-threatening persona appealed to audiences. ABC executives believed that Denver’s jolly presence would fit perfectly into the network’s Christmas season programming, and he was signed to create a one-shot holiday special.
Viewed from the jaded perspective of a contemporary vantage point, “John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas Special” is a wildly uneven effort, with the star offering a strange mix of emotions that seesaw between grinning self-confidence and visible uneasiness.
The show begins with a fairly imaginative style: the first thing on camera is a butterfly, which is something you rarely see in a Christmas show. We then see Denver singing “Aspenglow” behind the butterfly, and it looks like he is standing in a studio with a painted winter backdrop behind his stage. But, then, the viewer is shown the actual setting is a clear, climate controlled dome in the middle of a snowy Colorado meadow – the painted backdrop is the actual snowy ground and snow-kissed trees of the Rockies, while the butterfly and the plants in the studio are thriving in the artificially controlled climate. It is a startling way to launch the show, but Denver’s mechanical musical performance throws the smart effect off balance.
Almost immediately, Denver recovers when his song stops and the butterfly lands on him. “Far out!” the singer exclaims, looking down at his winged co-star. “How are you doing, little guy?” Denver then tells the audience in his dome-enclosed audience that he will be joined on the show by Valerie Harper, Olivia Newton-John and Steve Martin – the latter is identified by Denver as “weird ol’ Steve!”
From here, Denver goes outside of his dome and into the snowy Rocky Mountains, where he gets to hang out with “my friend, the sun” (yes, he actually says that!) while he goes skiing without a helmet. And the rest of the special finds him pinballing back and forth, from the white expanses of the great outdoors to the artificially green lushness of the engineered indoors.
But, strangely, Denver is much more relaxed away from the studio. Whether he is riding a horse in the snow, goofing about with the kids of a “free-from school” on handmade snow scooters or observing the flora and fauna of the Rockies, Denver looks like a man at peace with his world. But inside the studio, Denver seems stiff and a bit nervous – the relaxed outdoorsman is nowhere to be seen when he is on the stage.
Denver’s uncomfortable behavior seems to have rubbed off on his guests. Despite being heralded as a zany funnyman, Steve Martin is remarkably subdued – and even a bit boring – in his time with Denver. Although he tries to goof things up by wearing a butterfly on his nose while singing a warped tune about supposedly good behavior, Martin is a pale shadow of the wild and crazy guy that steamrolled his way through that era’s comedy scene. It is uncertain whether Denver had Martin tone down his wacky humor for the show or whether his excessive shtick was edited from the program.
Also at a disadvantage was Olivia Newton-John. She looks gorgeous, of course, but she is lacking the warmth and charisma that secured her stardom at that time. She lip-syncs “Let it Shine” while riding a horse in the outdoors, but she maintains a plastic-happy expression that makes her seem more like a musical mannequin. When she comes indoors to perform the duet “Fly Away” with Denver, the singers are positioned very far from each other – one could dismiss this as an artsy bit of direction, but Newton-John doesn’t give the impression that she is eager to be with Denver in the same space. (Newton-John was not credited on “Fly Away” when it was released as a single, so this was the first time that many people realized her voice was the melodic counterpart on the tune.)
As for Valerie Harper, she doesn’t appear to have any connection to Denver and the Colorado surroundings, either within the studio (where Denver drowns out her singing voice) or in a sour comedy sketch on a ski slope where she and Denver play a pair who eyeball each other in the distance and fantasize about a potential relationship that goes horribly wrong. With all of the possible ABC sitcom stars of the time, it is hard to fathom why ABC would approve having one of the biggest attractions from CBS on this show.
“John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas” ends with the star wearing a tuxedo (and looking unhappy about it), surrounded by his guests (with Martin playing the banjo) for a melody of holiday songs. Denver then speaks about the recent birth of his son Zachary and the child’s special meaning to his world. And with that inspirational insight, the show is over.
Despite the show’s significant flaws, audiences went wild for the idea of spending Christmas with Denver. The special was ratings blockbuster for the network, bringing in more than 60 million viewers for its broadcast on December 10, 1975, and it would later earn three Emmy Award nominations. Its success would secure Denver a place in television variety programming for the remainder of his life.
But, almost immediately, there were problems. The accompanying soundtrack album carefully removed any of the songs involving Denver’s guest stars – and while the album was fine on its own terms, the deletion of Martin, Newton-John and Harper was more than a little curious. With the arrival of the home video market, “John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas” was conspicuously absent from the VHS video years, and even at this late date there has never been a DVD offering. Most likely, music and performance clearance issues are too expensive to justify a re-release.
Fortunately, the special was videotaped by Denver’s fans during its initial presentation, and unauthorized postings of that broadcast (complete with the cheesy old 70s commercials) can be found on YouTube. Bootlegged DVDs are also easy to find and purchase online. And if “John Denver’s Rocky Mountain Christmas” doesn’t present the singer/songwriter at his best, it nonetheless gives today’s viewers a reminder of what used to pass as holiday entertainment during a period known as the Decade That Good Taste Forgot.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.