THE BOOTLEG FILES: JOHN DENVER & THE MUPPETS: A CHRISTMAS TOGETHER

BOOTLEG FILES 512: “John Denver & the Muppets: A Christmas Together” (1979 TV special).

LAST SEEN: The program can be seen in an unauthorized YouTube posting.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Music clearance rights are probably keeping this out of circulation.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It would be nice.

If you are reading this column, I assume that you survived Christmas. But unless you were watching YouTube or you have a stash of bootlegged Christmas specials on DVD, there is a good chance that the holidays went by without “John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together.”

By the end of the 1970s, John Denver’s popularity as a recording artist was beginning to wane. However, he still commanded enough star power to warrant a primetime television special in 1979, in which he was teamed with the Muppets. This was the second time that Denver starred in his own Christmas special – the first was “Rocky Mountain Christmas” in 1975 – and it was second teaming with the Muppets following his appearance on the fourth season of “The Muppet Show.”

The resulting “John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together” was something of an oddity. While the title would suggest the singer and Jim Henson’s fuzzy creations would be equal partners, the production is primarily focused on Denver. The Muppets, for the most part, offer a subdued support, with only Miss Piggy (pardon the pun) hogging the spotlight.

The special starts off with a rendition of “The 12 Days of Christmas.” Denver has the “partridge in a pair tree” line while the Muppets join in to divide the lyrics for the other 11 days. The song is mostly performed in a straightforward manner, with the only comedy coming from Fozzie’s occasional memory lapses for his lyric on the “seven swans a-swimming.”

The next scene offers the Muppets at a script planning meeting. Most of the Muppets are limited to tiny bits of shtick – Animal eats his script, the Swedish Chef bloviates in his incoherent faux-Scandinavian – and a strange debate briefly percolates on changing the phrase “goodwill to men” to accommodate others. Miss Piggy angrily declares, “The Bible is filled with women!” Denver joins the meeting for a minute before heading out into an extended musical number designed to look like a Currier and Ives lithograph.

The strange thing about this number is that the Muppets are on the sidelines watching as Denver and a dance squadron frolic around a snowy square. Denver obviously was taking dancing lessons prior to this, as he tapped his way about with a level of footwork that he rarely offered in his TV performances.

Denver later deals with Miss Piggy, who aggressively vamps him with the moniker “Jonathan” while she surreptitiously phones her agent to snag a larger role in an upcoming production number. Denver walks into a snowy forest, where he offers a rambling monologue on Christmas and nature before doing a solo rendition of “It’s in Every One of Us”; a few deer (real ones, not Muppet venison) stand around to watch him sing. Kermit the Frog then joins Denver for a surprisingly melancholic conversation about the holiday season before indulging in a low-key version of “The Christmas Wish.”

Back in Miss Piggy’s dressing room, some of the Muppets join her in a noisy rendition of “Christmas is Coming.” Denver then does another solo number, this time of “A Baby Just Like You.” Denver goes into an empty theater and joins Rowlf the Dog on “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but the gravelly Rowlf (with his unsubtle piano playing) does not vocally mesh with Denver’s mellow tones.

Next up is a big production centerpiece with a battalion of oversized wooden soldiers in precision dancing reminiscent of the celebrated Radio City Music Hall Christmas show. Denver plays a somewhat out of step soldier in the elaborately choreographed dance, and he is actually quite good. Then, in an utterly bad idea, Miss Piggy emerges as a doll named Fifi to sing “I Will Wait for You” from the French film classic “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” That number is not funny and it is dampens the impact of the wooden soldiers number that came before it.

Denver and the Muppets join together for the show’s conclusion, with includes a Muppet re-enactment of the Nativity (yes, Jim Henson reinvents the Holy Family), a German-language version of “Silent Night” and then an English version of the same song with a large chorus of children joining in the tune.

“John Denver & The Muppets: A Christmas Together” is somewhat disappointing, if only because the Muppets brand of humor is absent in favor of Denver’s singing and dancing. The most outrageous Muppet characters are reduced to either a line or two (Gonzo prattles briefly about chickens) or to an absence of dialogue (the crotchety Waldorf and Statler, the frantic Beaker and the fish-flinging Lew Zealand show up, but have nothing to say). Miss Piggy, as cited before, is given too much attention, but the character’s material is not special and she quickly becomes a bore. (But not a boar – sorry, but some porcine quips are too hard to resist.)

Denver and Henson’s crew recorded a soundtrack album to accompany the special, which turned out to be a best-selling seasonal offering that is still in print. The TV special itself was well received when ABC broadcast it on December 5, 1979, But unlike the soundtrack album, the TV special vanished immediately from sight. To date, there has never been a commercial home entertainment release of this production. I assume that the problem here relates to clearance rights to some of the Christmas music used in the show – Denver teamed with Henson’s Muppets for a 1982 TV special and that has been on VHS and DVD.

Now that deep-pocketed Disney owns the rights to the Muppets, perhaps the studio can pay to fix the problem and bring this long-absent production back for next year’s Christmas season.

And before I sign off for this year, I wanted to give a shout out to David Cornelius, my former colleague on the Online Film Critics Society’s Governing Committee, for giving me the suggestion for this week’s column. I would also like to thank the Film Threat audience for visiting with The Bootleg Files throughout the year. Happy New Year, and I’ll see you in 2014!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!




Posted on December 27, 2013 in Bootleg Files, Features by
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