John Denver is 2017’s Most Surprising Film Trend

Every year, I keep a running playlist in iTunes (leaving my expansive and long-gestating library of music would feel like too much of a betrayal to move to streaming music altogether) which contains my favorite music from the year in film, mixing together both score tracks and pop music. I usually try to keep it to one or two tracks per film based on how much I like the music and how memorably it is used in the film. So far my 2017 playlist is 31 songs deep, with Baby Driver and Atomic Blonde pushing the maximum to four songs each.

But the biggest trend in soundtracks this year is represented (so far) by two songs. In June, while at a screening of Okja there was a moment that earned a (rare) mid-film comment from me. I leaned over to Dan and whispered, “John Denver is having quite the year, huh?” Okja was the third film this year to use Denver’s music, and this week’s Logan Lucky adds a fourth to the list. Free Fire, out earlier this year, uses three Denver songs total, though “Annie’s Song” is the most prominent. Okja also employs “Annie’s Song,” while Logan Lucky and Alien: Covenant both feature “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

According to his IMDb page, his music has been used frequently on television, but not as frequently in movies over the last few years, though Armageddon, Catch Me If You Can, and The Rock all use “Leaving on a Jet Plane”* and the first two Final Destination films both use “Rocky Mountain High.” But with discovering this trend, I thought it would be interesting to dig in a little bit as to what John Denver means to each of these films.

Released in 1974, “Annie’s Song,” written for Denver’s first wife, was his second number 1 song in the United States. Both the lyrics and instrumentation make the song syrupy sweet, and listening to it always makes me imagine some teenage girl spinning the 45 in an orange and brown bedroom wishing a boy would sing “Come, let me love you” to her. Maybe that’s just me.

Free Fire is the worst film on this list, but its use of “Annie’s Song,” is perfect. Set sometime during the 1970s, the entire film is basically a gun deal gone wrong. The song enters the film in the clip above as two of the guys are listening to the radio when they bring the van into the warehouse. Later on, after things have gone horribly sideways, “Annie’s Song” comes on at full blast as a wounded character drives the van through the final participants of the gunfight at less than ten miles an hour. The use of the song obviously is playing off the time period in which the film is set, but director Ben Wheatley using this song in particular to juxtapose the darkest parts of the film works brilliantly, and gives the audience a moment or two to laugh and release some of the tension before the film rushes to its final moments.

While the action in Free Fire is moving slowly, director Bong Joon-ho uses “Annie’s Song” during literal slow motion in Okja as the Animal Liberation Front try to rescue the titular animal from a shopping mall. The New York Times featured this exact moment in their Anatomy of a Scene feature, and even asked the director about the song selection:

NYT: How did you come to use “Annie’s Song” by John Denver in the scene?

BJH: I never planned it when I was preparing the movie. But when I was a little kid my older brother was a huge fan of that song. He repeated that song, humming and would keep playing, playing, playing it. At that time, I was a little bit sick of that song. But it’s a nostalgic song. And suddenly, during the editing process when the moment of the slow motion begins, suddenly I was reminded of the song.

Both films use it as a way to juxtapose against the action happening in the film, and while a girl living in remote South Korea may not have ever heard John Denver, the tone of “Annie’s Song” certainly underlines how out of control things have gotten since her and her pet pig left their home. It’s a great use of the song, and probably the most unexpected instance of John Denver of any of these four films.

“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” was Denver’s only Platinum single, and was released in 1971. There’s a story behind how the song came to be Denver’s, which Channing Tatum’s character shares with his daughter in the opening moments of director Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. I won’t spoil that (it’s on the song’s Wikipedia page too), but for the characters in both Logan Lucky and Alien: Covenant, the song represents home and familial connection.

While in Logan Lucky, the song is the state anthem of the character’s home, for the crew in Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, it points them to their fate. Early on in the film, the crew discovers a signal which turns out to be the rock-country hit, to much confusion but excitement (Danny McBride’s character especially has a great reaction to it). Following the signal leads them to a planet that seems like “almost Heaven,” as it even has human-grown wheat on it. Of course, things don’t go well, since they are in an Alien movie. This trailer plays that up nicely:

I love how all four of these filmmakers use popular music to establish tone and mood within the film. Each of these are excellent examples of why I love soundtracks and scores. I’ll also be keeping this letterboxd list up to date in case John Denver’s music graces cinemas again this year.

Author: Ryan Silberstein

Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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