' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Rocky Mountain Christmas (1975)

Friday, December 15, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Rocky Mountain Christmas (1975)

John Denver’s 1975 ABC Special “Rocky Mountain Christmas”, which I managed to watch only by finding an extremely rough upload on Dailymotion, begins not with a shot of its titular singer-songwriter but a close-up of a butterfly. Even as you see the butterfly, however, you hear soothing acoustic chords being strummed and, sure enough, an instant later the focus flips and we see John Denver himself, guitar in hand, standing just beyond the butterfly, the two of them in harmony. Then, the camera cuts to a slightly wider angle to reveal John Denver standing on a stage, singing “Aspenglow”, before a riveted audience. Then, the camera cuts to its widest angle yet, not of John Denver but of what appears to be some sort of small dome in a snowy meadow. That’s because upon re-entering Denver’s presence as his song ends, he explains they are inside a transparent bubble (his words!) inside a snowy meadow. Outside, it’s winter; inside, it’s spring. This marks “Rocky Mountain Christmas”, as far as I know, as the only made-for-TV Christmas special to take place inside a transparent bubble.

Well, it doesn’t only. It goes other places. As is the typical strategy for these sorts of things, “Rocky Mountain Christmas” oscillates between folksy singing, like Valerie Harper sharing a duet with Denver and sort of breaking and semi-laughing when Denver gets really worked up, and separately filmed moments of outdoors action, where an ice-skating Denver is shown in comical, then-high-tech fast-forward, rewinding replay falling down, over and over. Denver’s voice is sprinkled throughout, of course, in his expected sort of hippie-ish inflection, with musings of “far out” and “my friend, the sun”, reflecting the special’s oft-trippy ethos, like a mid-movie ode to the Brook Trout and how it keeps on keeping on even beneath coats of ice. And it is in these moments, when it moves past stock shots of slow-motion skiing and horses galloping in front of the admittedly picturesque Colorado Rockies, for scenes of more blissful Wait, What-edness, that the special fares best, never more so than Denver rough-housing with a goddam grizzly cub like a precursor to Timothy Treadwell.

John Denver & Uncredited Grizzly Cub
Really. This happens, and the understandably rambunctious Grizzly upstages Steve Martin’s cameo playing banjo with a butterfly on his nose while singing a song of nonsense, as does Olivia Newton John’s separately filmed number of “Let It Shine” which better, if unintentionally, embodies the comedy Martin yearns to evince. Newton John begins her song aboard a horse, as the camera switches between wide angles and medium shots, including one when the horse trots into the frame before, judging by the equine’s movement and Newton John’s facial expression, bursting into a totally unexpected gallop, which the editor, for some reason, does not cut away from in time to disguise, allowing for a few good belly laughs at the poor singer’s expense. Even off the horse, however, she is made to walk up a short. snowy slope, where you can see her right foot slipping the whole time she does, and when the whole thing concludes in close-up, her frozen-on smile suggests she just wants this all to be over.

And for as much time as they are willing to stick with an unamused Newton-John, I wish they could have spent a little more time at the free-form school that Denver visits, where, as he explains, kids are allowed to “focus on what they’re interested in.” That sounds an awful like lot un-schooling. But unfortunately, perhaps expectedly, “Rocky Mountain Christmas” just sort of glosses over that to the school’s kids building “snow scooters.” Giving un-schooling a platform on ABC at a time when TV just was The Big 3 seems sort of radical, even more so even than Denver’s concluding to-the-camera soliloquy in which he references the story of Jesus.

Then again, that monologue gives way to Denver admitting how the commercialization of Christmas has left him disenchanted, which led him to pen a song that he closes the special by singing in that famous serene timbre. It was a song, I admit, that kind of got me in the wake of the latest barrage of bad news which was why I had sought “Rocky Mountain Christmas” in the first place and gladly settled for this crappy copy of it. Alas, it was a crappy copy for a reason. Ninety seconds or so into his concluding tune, the Dailymotion upload cut out, pre-empting the special’s ending. I felt like a Brook Trout suddenly, unwillingly yanked up from under the ice to be filleted. My own transparent bubble had burst.

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