Great Voices Sing John Denver (2013)
Written and Directed by: Kenneth R. Shapiro
Produced by: Elisa Justice, Milton Okun, Rosemary Okun, Peter Primont, Kenneth R. Shapiro, Mark Shimmel
Music Arranged and Directed by: Lee Holdridge
Music and Lyrics: John Denver
Starring: Danielle de Niesse, Placido Domingo, Placido Domingo Jr., Rodney Gilfry, Denyce Graves, Nathan Gunn, Thomas Hampson, Daniel Montenegro, Barbara Padilla, René Pape, Matthew Polenzani, Patricia Racette, Shenyang, Stuart Skelton, Dolora Zajick
Great Voices Sing John Denver, a film written and directed by Kenneth R. Shapiro, premiered at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on October 13, 2013. Produced by Elisa Justice, Milton Okun, Rosemary Okun, Peter Primont, Kenneth Shapiro, and Mark Shimmel, this award-winning documentary about the making of the eponymous CD album in which 15 stars of the opera world pay tribute to the legendary singer-songwriter, actor, humanitarian, and environmental activist John Denver.
Shapiro’s film, which followed the “dropping” by MPE Music of the Great Voices Sing John Denver album by four months, is a combination of interviews with the artists corralled by the late and great Milt Okun, who not only had produced many of Denver’s albums and Placido Domingo’s first foray into the pop music world, Perhaps Love, in which the Spanish tenor not only sang Annie’s Song, but also performed the title song as a chart-busting duet with John Denver.
John Denver and opera fans alike have something to look forward to as we go behind the scenes of the creation of the new CD called ‘Great Voices Sing John Denver’. Legendary music producer Milton Okun, along with arranger and conductor Lee Holdridge, bring some of the most famous names in opera to sing John Denver’s famous hit songs. Featured artists include Placido Domingo, Danielle de Niese, Matthew Polenzani (singing in English and Italian) Patricia Racette, Rene Pape, Nathan Gunn, Dolora Zajick, Thomas Hampson, Rod Gilfry, Denyce Graves, Shenyang (singing in English and Mandarin) Daniel Montenegro, Placido Domingo Jr., Stuart Skelton and Barbara Padilla. Each artist got to select the song they wanted and share with us their reasons. – Publicity blurb on the Blu-ray packaging, Great Voices Sing John Denver
In this award-winning film (it won the Spirit of the Independents Award at the 2013 Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival in 2013, and Milt Okun, his wife Rosemary, Elisa Justice, and director Shapiro shared the Best Producer of a Documentary award at that year’s Madrid International Film Festival in Spain) Shapiro presents the artists in 15 interview/performance vignettes that combines each singer’s recollection of how and why the songs were chosen with a full presentation of the song. All of the songs in the Great Voices Sing John Denver album are performed in the 90-minutes-long movie, albeit not in the same order as in the recording.
The main film is divided as follows:
- Perhaps Love (Placido Domingo & Placido Domingo Jr.)
- This Old Guitar (Rod Gilfry)
- Rhymes and Reasons (Daniele de Niese)
- For You (Matthew Polenzani)
- Goodbye Again (Daniel Montenegro)
- Like a Sad Song (Dolora Zajick)
- Fly Away (Stuart Skelton & Barbara Padilla)
- Calypso (Nathan Gunn)
- Sweet Surrender (Thomas Hampson)
- The Eagle and the Hawk (Dolora Zajick, Daniel Montenegro, Rod Gilfry)
- Sunshine on My Shoulders (Denyce Graves)
- Follow Me (Rene Pape)
- Shanghai Breezes (Shenyang)
- Leaving On a Jet Plane (Patricia Racette)
- Annie’s Song (All Artists)
As I mentioned earlier, the songs in the film version of Great Voices Sing John Denver are the same ones in the album, with arrangements by composer/arranger Holdridge, who had collaborated with the late John Denver in various projects, including serving as arranger in some of Denver’s best known albums, as well as directing the ensembles that performed the orchestral backing in 1981’s Perhaps Love. The only differences, besides the audio/visual format, are the track order and the placement of the Italian- and Chinese-language covers of For You and Shanghai Breezes in the Extra Features section of the home media edition of the film.
- Shenyang’s performance of Shanghai Breezes in Mandarin
- Matthew Polenzani’s performance of Per Te (For You) in Italian
- Six Featurettes
- English subtitles (main feature only)
I first heard the Great Voices Sing John Denver when it was “suggested” to me by my Amazon Music app last fall; I had just purchased The Essential John Denver on CD and added the free digital “AutoRip” copy to my collection of digital albums. As part of my Amazon Prime membership, the app was allowing me to listen to the tribute album gratis (for a limited time, naturally), so out of curiosity, I added Great Voices Sing John Denver to my playlist.
Now, I’m not a big opera aficionado. Although I am an avid listener of classical music and have listened to many overtures, incidental themes, and famous arias (Nessun Dorma and Ride of the Valkyries come to mind), I have only seen one of the classic operas in toto, and that one is Bizet’s Carmen. It’s not that I hate opera; I don’t. I just have not taken the time to immerse myself fully in that genre.
But because I do like the songs of John Denver, and because I appreciate great voices when I hear them, I found myself loving the album more each time that I listened to it. As a result, when the “free listen” period (which I guess was 90 days) ended, I decided to purchase the digital edition (Amazon didn’t have the physical disc for sale) and add it to my permanent music library.
I was so taken by the album, which I believe was one of Milt Okun’s final recordings before he died in 2016, that I also purchased the film in three different formats: Blu-ray, digital (on Amazon Prime Video), and DVD.
Before I watched Great Voices Sing John Denver for the first time in January, I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be merely a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the album with video clips featuring short excerpts from the songs as they were recorded? Or would it be an “old” MTV-like collection of full-on performances mixed with excerpts from interviews with the singers and the producers?
Based on the information on the Great Voices Sing John Denver website, I was more or less convinced that that Shapiro’s film would be more of a complement to the album rather than a collection of music videos filmed during the recording sessions. I mean, nowhere in the film’s promotional blurb does it say, “watch complete performances of John Denver’s great songs in our movie.”
At best, I figured we’d get a full version of Perhaps Love, which is the best-known song done in this “opera singer meets pop” style in the Great Voices album. (As Lee Holdridge says in the film, the song and eponymous album kicked off the “popera” genre; after Perhaps Love became a best-selling album, it ushered in other acts that featured classical opera singers singing non-opera music or mixing pop songs with operatic arias. If not for Milt Okun’s alchemy with Perhaps Love, listeners probably would never have been introduced to The Three Tenors, Andrea Bocelli, or Josh Groban.)
To my relief, it turns out that the film Great Voices Sing John Denver showcases full performances of the 15 English language tracks heard in the MPE Music album (Shenyang’s Mandarin cover of Shanghai Breezes and Matthew Polenzani’s Italian-language rendition of For You/Per Te have been relegated, inexplicably, to the Extra Features portion of the DVD/Blu-ray).
The film, like the album, features a We Are the World-style rendition of Annie’s Song. Technically, this is a collage of separate individual performances edited to sound like one single recording. This is because by this point in the film’s shooting schedule, the featured singers were scattered throughout the world due to their commitments to concerts or opera performances on their professional schedules. It is not just a beautiful climax to the film, but also a correction to the snub given to John when the We Are the World video was made. (Denver had sent word to producer Quincy Jones that he would like to be included; the request was denied because the singer was considered to be not “pop music” enough for an invite.)
You don’t have to be a devotee of opera or an avid John Denver fan to enjoy this film or the album that inspired it. When I was a kid growing up in Miami in the 1970s and early ‘80s, Denver was at the zenith of his career, so I was familiar with (and liked) many of his songs. I wasn’t a huge fan then; some of my friends were, but even though I had an eight-track tape of Denver’s 1976 Greatest Hits compilation album, I was too musically immature to appreciate how talented the man was. (And in an inexplicable lapse of good musical taste, when my eight-track deck finally wore out after the format had gone out of vogue, I never replaced that Greatest Hits tape either with a cassette or compact disc reissue.)
It’s only recently that I “rediscovered” John Denver’s songs and musical artistry, and since late summer of 2019 I have purchased The Essential John Denver and two other albums on compact disc. I also have, in addition to Great Voices Sing John Denver, two live concert DVDs, 1995’s The Wildlife Concert and a later release of one of Denver’s late 1970s concerts in Japan.
I love them all, but I have to admit that Kenneth Shapiro’s film about the making of the 2013 tribute album is the one I watch most often. Not only is the presentation technically well-done, but the interviews with each of the singers are both fascinating and revealing.
For instance, we learn that the acclaimed Metropolitan Opera singer Dolora Zajick has sung some of the opera repertoire’s most famous roles but had never sung a pop song as a professional vocal artist. Germany’s Rene Pape grew up in the Communist eastern half of the then-divided nation during the Cold War. As a result, he was not exposed to John Denver’s songs until German reunification in 1991. And Barbara Padilla admits that when she was six, she bought the album Perhaps Love for her mom as a Mother’s Day gift, but she was the one who listened to it most.
I recommend this award-winning film to anyone who enjoys great music. Yes, it will appeal a great deal to either fans of John Denver or are familiar with the artists recruited by Milt and Rosemary Okun, Elisa Justice, and Lee Holdridge. But, honestly, Denver’s music and lyrics are appealing to wider audiences, a fact that Holdridge alludes to when he reminisces about telling Denver that his songs were, in essence, great folk songs in the vein of Stephen Foster. “Americana,” as Holdridge says.
I heartily agree with that assessment.