Wholesome — an accurate description of John Denver — does not necessarily translate into corny — an accurate description of “The John Denver Story.” In a superficial retelling of Denver’s rise to fame and his commitment to the environment, Stephen Harrigan’s small-screen adaptation of Denver’s biography focuses on how Denver seemingly lived for one thing only: the approval of his Air Force pilot father. Even if this telepic had stuck to the facts, it could have created a far warmer portrait of a man whose simple and uplifting songs became his passport to the world.
In the title role, Chad Lowe spends the two hours with a ceaseless grin plastered on his face, as if his character study had been limited to album covers and publicity shots. Lowe lip-syncs several Denver classics and a few lesser-known tunes, giving the pic’s target audience — fans who grew up with “Country Roads” and “Rocky Mountain High” — one element to keep them tuned in. Background music outside the 15 Denver numbers is unabashedly treacly.
Pic is blocked out by years, starting with a terse discussion between Major Dad (a stern Gerald McRaney) and Denver in 1964. Young John has made up his mind he will quit college and become a folk musician on the hootenanny circuit. He becomes a member of the Chad Mitchell Trio and in 1965 meets his future wife Annie (Kristin Davis), whom he pursues across states and time zones with a marriage proposal always at the ready.
His musical run as solo act — the Mitchell breakup story here is half-fiction — takes flight at the D.C. club the Cellar Door in ’67 . Evidently figuring the core audience is aware that Peter, Paul & Mary struck it big for Denver in 1969 when his “Leaving on a Jet Plane” was a hit for the trio, the vidpic moves straight to 1972, a year in which “Country Roads” was already a year old, but producers chose to tell us he was just writing the tune.
Rather than explore what goes into the making of singer-songwriter in the 1970s and how Denver developed as an artist, telepic leaps ahead another four years, concentrating on Annie’s disillusionment with Denver’s career, their fertility problems and that nagging problem about Dad.
“You don’t want to live in the Rocky Mountains,” Annie shouts at John as he plans treks to China, Africa and Hollywood (for “Oh, God!” with George Burns), “you just want to sing about it.” Well yeah — he was taking advantage of opportunities to enter Communist countries as well as use television to increase his visibility, which opened doors for artists for decades to come. That, apparently, is a completely different story.
As is the role of Jerry Weintraub, who took over as Denver’s manager during the singer’s early days at RCA. Denver is managed throughout the telepic by Hal Thau (Brian Markinson), who dictates every bit of news to Denver in an unenthusiastic drone. News such as RCA has dropped Denver. (The telepic says it was because he hadn’t had a hit; reality says new owners GE didn’t want performers with liberal agendas).
Final third of the Denver story tries to find drama in Dad’s acceptance of Denver — John has, surprise, taken up flying — his divorce from Annie, a reconciliation with his two adopted children and his short-lived marriage to Aussie Cassandra Delaney, their baby and his DUI. It’s all so pat and as it jumbles years with facts, it skips over his vital anti-censorship testimony in front of Congress in tandem with Frank Zappa. And it only offhandedly mentions his connections with Jacques Cousteau.
Biographies should get behind the subject and supply the information that generally has been overlooked elsewhere. For every time Denver made a goofy recording with the Muppets, he had an adventurous recording partner as well (among them Placido Domingo, Bob Marley’s Wailers and I-Threes, and France’s Sylvie Vartan). Denver’s music may not belong in any hall of fame, but his considerable contributions to society deserve a better treatment than this work.
Davis plays Annie as if she’s still doing her role on “Sex and the City”: a bit naive and trusting, but thoroughly dissatisfied once there is more than their love in the picture. Her character, however, is at least two-dimensional whereas all others are written and played to move along the story. McRaney gets only one shot to do more than sound embarrassed about his kid, and that comes off well despite it’s obviousness.
Jerry London’s direction is serviceable yet Mike Fash’s cinematography, particularly of mountain views, is arresting for a small-screen production. It is unmatched by the drama of the story at hand. Denver’s family life, it seems, just wasn’t all that out of the ordinary. That should have been a clue to direct the focus elsewhere.