movies

Why John Denver music is seemingly in every movie these days

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Movies
John Denver and George Burns in Oh, God! (Photo: Courtesy of Everett Collection)

At first glance, Alien: Covenant, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, Okja, and Logan Lucky wouldn’t seem to have anything in common besides a summer 2017 release date … and disappointing box-office grosses. But listen more closely and you’ll hear a unifying sound tying them together. That would be the voice of iconic folk-pop star John Denver, whose music is currently enjoying a cinematic renaissance 20 years after his passing. Denver’s 1971 anthem “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is prominently featured in Ridley Scott’s latest Alien film, as well as The Long Haul and Logan Lucky, while 1974’s “Annie’s Song” underscores a wild chase sequence in Bong Joon Ho’s delightful “girl and her giant pig” movie, Okja. (“Annie’s Song” also cropped up on the soundtrack for British director Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire, which opened in U.S. theaters in April.) And both of those tunes are heard in the just-released blockbuster sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, which topped the box-office charts last weekend.

Coincidental timing is one obvious explanation for the sudden ubiquity of Denver’s music in major motion pictures. According to Brian L. Schwartz, whose 7S Management oversees the late musician’s estate, it’s also part of a targeted strategy several years in the making. Following Denver’s death in a 1997 plane crash, his business manager, Hal Thau, oversaw the licensing of his recordings for many years. Then, in 2010, Schwartz and his business partner, Amy Abrams, were brought on board by the singer’s three children, even though they weren’t necessarily the most likely candidates for the job. “I manage rock bands, and I heard that John Denver’s estate was going to be seeking management,” Schwartz tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I had this intensity about needing to get a meeting. I grew up on John Denver: I had watched him on The Tonight Show, and saw all his movies. I’ve also lived in Colorado since 1991, and he’s a huge part of Colorado.”

Watch: The Alien: Covenant “Take Me Home” TV spot:

Although they didn’t have any previous experience in estate management, Schwartz says, he and Abrams came into their new roles with some definite ideas about how to bring Denver’s music back to the masses through the mass media. “In this position, you always have to be thinking ahead of the curve, and be aggressive and active. It takes a while to plant the seeds before you see them grow, and that’s what we’re seeing now.” Schwartz points to a 2014 decision to transition the estate’s U.S. publishing partners from BMG to Kobalt as one such seed that actively flowered in 2017. “We really wanted to see an increase in the licensing for film and TV, and we do monthly calls with them and come up with creative ideas. Kobalt knows what movies, commercials, and TV shows are being made and require music and are actively pitching when appropriate.”

Those Kobalt pitches are often what leads to placement in movies like Alien: Covenant, where “Take Me Home, Country Roads” has a kind of spectral presence, drawing the crew of the titular starship to a distant planet where they suspect they might find human life. “Music supervisors send out scene descriptions saying, ‘We’re looking for an iconic song from the ’70s and ’80s,’” Schwartz says. “And then publishers [like Kobalt] send over the copyrights they have within their catalog, and hopefully the supervisor goes, ‘Oh, that makes so much sense.’”

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a movie like Okja, where Joon Ho specifically pursued “Annie’s Song” for a scene where the titular pig goes on a rampage through a mall, a seemingly incongruous song choice that winds up being completely harmonious. “My older brother was a huge fan of that song … and during the editing process, I was reminded of it,” the South Korean director told the New York Times.

Logan Lucky is another likely example of a premeditated use of Denver, since director Steven Soderbergh built that film’s climax around a live performance of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” sung by the movie’s young star, Farrah Mackenzie. “We always ask to hear [original performances],” Schwartz says. “We want to know John’s music is being portrayed in the best way possible and not being made fun of or used in a derogatory way. Of course, with a Steven Soderbergh film, we’re not going to be too concerned about it, because he makes great films!” Without naming specific titles, Schwartz adds that the estate has turned down certain placements that didn’t meet their standards. “It’s hard enough to license music, so we want to be easy to work with. But John wrote and performed iconic songs, so we have to protect the value of those copyrights too.”

Given those concerns, it might seem surprising that Schwartz and Abrams signed off on licensing “Annie’s Song” and “Country Roads” for use in The Golden Circle, considering that the Kingsman franchise makes a point of gleefully ridiculing everything from former U.S. presidents to the laws of physics. Confessing that he never saw the first Kingsman, Schwartz says that he subjected The Golden Circle to the same rigorous treatment as every request that crosses his desk. “We always ask for the scene description and how the song is being used; it’s protocol. And listen, we’re open to humor! We’re not uptight about it. We just want to make sure it’s a good use.”

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is one of the many movies to use a John Denver song this year.

In fact, when he was alive, Denver himself had a good sense of humor about his public image and back catalog. Schwartz remembers hearing stories about how the singer laughed out loud during the scene from 1994’s Dumb and Dumber where Jim Carrey’s Lloyd Christmas remarks, “That John Denver is full of s***, man,” while driving through territory he believes is the Rocky Mountains. “John got a kick out of that! His touring band guys told me that they remembered him watching Dumb and Dumber and just loving it. We just try to permit these uses in alignment with the way we think John would have approved his music being used.”

While declining to provide specific figures, Schwartz indicates that the combined efforts of 7S Management and Kobalt to court film licensing have proved financially and creatively lucrative for John Denver’s estate. Going forward, his dreams include licensing a Denver tune to serve as the theme song for a TV series or accompany the exploits of larger-than-life action heroes like Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. In the meantime, there are other non-movie projects in the works, including a streaming yule log video scored to Denver’s Christmas albums that should be available in time for the holiday season. The estate also plans to mark the 20th anniversary of Denver’s death, as well as the 40th anniversary of Oh, God!, the 1977 box-office hit that paired the singer with George Burns.

Funnily enough, the Yule log video will offer viewers the opportunity to sample a wider variety of John Denver’s music than Hollywood currently is. “I would love to see some more diversity,” Schwartz says when asked about the multitude of requests for “Annie’s Song” and “Country Roads,” reeling off such personal favorites as “Rocky Mountain High, “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” “Back Home Again,” and “Calypso.” “What’s great about [film licensing] is that it exposes John’s music to new people and younger generations. With a lot of these movies, you’ll have grandparents taking their grandchildren, and they’ll hear that song and get excited. There’s magic in connecting with [your family] on a song. That’s the reason why I think it’s so important that we continue to license John’s music.”

Watch: The trailer for Oh, God:

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