As unlikely as it may sound, John Denver had a 2017 full of milestones. In addition to the 20th anniversary of his untimely passing, the late folk-country legend celebrated a Hollywood breakthrough most could not have seen coming. In his life, John Denver was no stranger to the big screen (both as an actor and in soundtracks), but 2017 was something else entirely. No less than five major releases sported Denver songs. Karen Han’s great piece for Vulture explains this sudden prevalence and breaks down the ways in which the songs are utilized in each film. But for a quick roll call: “Annie’s Song” appears in Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire and Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, and “Take Me Home, Country Roads” appears in Alien: Covenant, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and, most importantly for our discussion, Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky.
“Take Me Home, Country Roads,” released in 1971, was one of John Denver’s biggest hits, spawning countless covers and tributes. The song’s sense of wistful, pure longing for home has resonated with millions all across the world: it’s become a standard tune for several English soccer teams, for example, with the lyrics altered to match their home stadiums. But, to no one’s surprise, the song is embraced most fondly in the very “home” it so longs for, West Virginia. In 2014, West Virginia’s state legislature passed a resolution making it one of the official state songs.
Looking for the perfect opposite of the sleepy, rural West Virginia of Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads?” Head all the way across the globe to the world’s most populated metropolitan area: Tokyo, Japan. In 1995, a Tokyo animation studio, led by an in-his-prime Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke), set to work adapting a charming manga called Mimi O Sumaseba (literally, If You Listen Closely). The story, written and illustrated by Aoi Hiiragi, told of a young, book-obsessed girl who finds the same name on all of the library cards from the books she checks out. Who is the mysterious boy who reads all the books before she can get to them?
An under-discussed aspect of Miyazaki-as-auteur is his knack for finding source material, and for tweaking it slightly to better fit both his own personal philosophies and the medium of film in general. Miyazaki wrote a screenplay based on the manga, changing a few very key details. Most notably, he made the relatively bold and unexpected choice of adding a 25-year-old American folk song as the emotional backbone of this story about suburban Japanese high schoolers.
Despite all that, Whisper of the Heart (as it was called in English) is not solely a Hayao Miyazaki movie. It was directed by Ghibli veteran Yoshifumi Kondo. Kondo was a hard-working behind-the-scenes animator, exactly the kind of person whose contributions made Studio Ghibli’s films the classics they are. He designed characters, drew key animations and served as animation director on a number of productions, including Grave of the Fireflies, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Porco Rosso, and Pom Poko.
In 1995, Kondo’s time had come. He was the next generation, both a student and a contemporary of Miyazaki’s. So for his debut feature, he was given the job of directing Miyazaki’s latest script, Whisper of the Heart.
The film was a massive success both critically and financially. It was the highest-grossing domestic-made film in Japan in 1995. A deeply earnest portrayal of teenage insecurity and ambition, it deftly combines the affectations of both of Studio Ghibli’s founders: Isao Takahata’s everyday realism (Grave of the Fireflies, Only Yesterday) and Hayao Miyazaki’s imaginative fancy. The end result is a masterpiece of displaying big emotions in small moments.
Whisper of the Heart owes a great deal of its power to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The song serves as a narrative framework for the movie: we open to a slow vertical pan (one of many) of a glittering, nighttime Tokyo, as Olivia Newton-John’s “Country Roads” cover swells. On first viewing, it can be a little jarring; Newton-John just about gets to the lyrics “Blue Ridge Mountains / Shenandoah River” before we first see a car driving on the left side of the street.
The song’s inclusion is more than stylistic, though. Our protagonist, Shizuku (Yoko Honna), is a serious bookworm who has taken it upon herself to translate “Take Me Home, Country Roads” into a Japanese version that could be sung by her friends in choir. Early on, the movie addresses the obvious dissonance between the song and the setting. Shizuku presents a translation of the song to her friend, Yuko, before showing her a second, joke version she’s written, called “Concrete Roads”:
Concrete roads, everywhere /
Cut down all the trees, filled in the valleys /
Western Tokyo /
Tama Mountain /
My home is concrete roads.
In a series of classic teen misunderstandings, the initially rude mystery boy Seiji Amasawa (Issei Takahashi) finds the “Concrete Roads” lyrics and thinks she’s written them seriously. He teases her over them, and Shizuku tries her best to ignore him. A strange cat leads her to a small, treasure-filled antique store, run by a kindly old man. It then becomes clear that the old man is young Seiji’s grandfather, and below the antique store Shizuku discovers Seiji’s violin workshop. He carefully carves the scroll into the handle of a violin, explaining how his ultimate goal is to be a professional luthier.
Shizuku excitedly encourages him to play the violin for her, and he does, but only on the condition that she sings along. She quickly realizes what song he’s playing and hesitantly joins in. Early into their rendition, Seiji’s grandfather returns home with some friends and sneaks downstairs to join them.
There are many small touches that make this scene so heartwarming. Shizuku nervously taps her toe to find the beat before joining in. Seiji gives a wink to encourage her. Her lyrics, too, are darker and more mature than earlier in the movie. This is an instance where the subtitled, Japanese version really outshines the English dub, as well. Shizuku doesn’t sound like a professional singer, because why would she? She puts her heart into these words, her words, and her imperfect voice only further accentuates the genuine nature of this moment. Not to mention, Grandpa’s random friend takes a moment to absolutely flex on everyone with a ridiculous recorder solo.
It’s a turning point in the film. Seiji and Shizuku leave the bickering and teasing behind, and the conflict moves from external to internal. Shizuku sees Seiji’s unwavering, clear ambition and envies it. What should she do with her life? How could she be with somebody whose goals are so clear, when hers are so unfocused?
After a talk with her best friend, she decides to set to work writing a story. It tells the tale of The Baron, one of the most striking antiques Shizuku encountered in the grandfather’s shop. In a few brief segments (which, by some accounts, were directed by Miyazaki himself), we enter the fantasy world she has created, including a stunning vista of floating pastel islands.
Seiji leaves for a two month trial stint in his dream city, the luthier’s capital, Cremona, Italy. Shizuku self-imposes a deadline: she’ll have her story finished by the time he returns. At the expense of her schoolwork, she laser-focuses on her only priority, which causes troubles with her family at home. A nervous wreck, she hurriedly gives the finished story to Seiji’s grandfather, who she promised could read it first. After insisting he read it all in one sitting, she nearly catches a cold waiting outside for him to finish, a ball of pure creative fear and regret. He returns and congratulates her on her work, and she bursts into tears, exhausted.
The next morning, before the sun rises, Shizuku wakes to find Seiji outside her apartment on his bike. Seiji leads her to a favorite place of his, the top of a huge hill, to see the sun rise. It spills its light over the vast suburban cityscape, skyscrapers twinkling tiny in the distance. It’s another small moment made big: Seiji proclaims his love to her, and asks her if someday, in their unsure futures, she would marry him. The very picture of optimistic young love, Shizuku nods her head, before being swept up in a huge hug.
This final scene is underscored by a slow, a capella, Japanese version of “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which bursts into a full (very 1995) instrumentation right as the credits begin to roll. This version is sung by Yoko Hanno, the voice actor for Shizuku, though it’s so different from the character’s rendition in the film that it seems as if it isn’t supposed to be an in-character performance.
The song plays throughout the credits, which roll over a fixed shot of a day’s worth of people crossing a bridge. Some characters we recognize, but most are just residents of the town, walking dogs and going to school. It’s one last example of the simple familiarity that this movie so excels in. And the return of “Country Roads” completes the film’s structure, a final, warm send-off.
In 2017, each of the films that use “Take Me Home, Country Roads” seem to understand the emotional potential of the song, though they ultimately find different levels of success with it. Alien: Covenant, the newest installment in the famously stark and horrifying Alien series, uses the song refreshingly against type, making it into a haunting dirge. Noomi Rapace’s Shaw hums the tune in a half-received transmission.
Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn’s spy sequel, plays the song for both emotion and humor, a combination that might have worked in the better-crafted original film. It’s a story beat that feels frustratingly un-earned, despite having all of the bones of a truly great moment. If it feels like I’m being vague, that’s because I am. To reveal the moment here would be to reveal the movie’s biggest spoiler, and even for a movie as half-hearted as The Golden Circle, that doesn’t seem fair. But Vaughn did express disappointment about the song’s omnipresence in an interview with Uproxx, saying, “I wrote John Denver into the script two and a half years ago thinking, ‘No one really talks about John Denver anymore.’ Now I think we’re the sixth movie using John Denver!”
One of many strange coincidences involved in this story is that two of the films in discussion, Kingsman and Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky, both star Channing Tatum. In both films, he plays some slightly exaggerated version of a rural American stereotype (in Kingsman, it’s more than slightly exaggerated). Tatum’s character in Logan Lucky is Jimmy, a down-on-his-luck divorced father who enlists his one-armed brother (played by Adam Driver) to rob a NASCAR race.
It’s in Logan Lucky, a film set between North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia itself, that we find the most honest, heartwarming movie version of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” since Kondo and Miyazaki’s scene in Whisper of the Heart. The movie begins with Jimmy fixing his truck while explaining the history of his favorite song to his daughter, Sadie, who periodically hands him various tools. One of the many pieces of bright, garish American culture featured in this film is the childhood beauty pageant, an event that Sadie looks forward to for the movie’s whole duration. She has prepared a performance of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” and in one charming moment, she dons swimming goggles in order for Jimmy to spray her down with fake tan loaded into a paint gun.
As the time for her performance grows near, she wonders where her father is. He promised he’d make it to see her sing. After Jimmy’s intricate, Ocean’s Eleven-esque heist is through, he finally walks in to the pageant, just as his daughter takes the stage. They lock eyes, and Sadie decides to ditch her planned routine. Her mother watches as she drops her umbrella, walks to the front of the stage, and begins singing her father’s favorite song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” The West Virginia pageant crowd, so moved by the small girl’s song, begins to sing along.
It’s a gorgeous, deftly crafted scene, and it’s hard to miss the parallels with Whisper of the Heart’s central sequence. A nervous young girl with an unsure voice sings “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and by the scene’s end, the whole room has joined in to build a joyful chorus.
Whether or not Soderbergh, a noted movie nerd, has seen Whisper of the Heart remains to be seen. He has kept meticulous lists of everything he watches and posted it on his blog each year since 2009 and Whisper doesn’t appear (yes, I checked). It’s a personal holy mission of mine to avoid auteur-theory generalizations, though, so next I tried to look into the film’s screenwriter.
This proved to be more difficult than usual, because for the person to whom the screenplay is credited, Rebecca Blunt, does not actually exist. It’s a pseudonym, and for many months last year, the writer’s true identity was the subject of some speculation. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Blunt was Soderbergh himself- on Logan Lucky alone, Soderbergh worked under the names Peter Andrews (for cinematography) and Mary Ann Bernard (for editing). Or maybe Blunt actually did exist, as both Driver and Soderbergh insisted.
But the most popular theory would prove to be the correct one: Rebecca Blunt is a pseudonym for Jules Asner, former live TV personality, writer of the novel Whacked, and Soderbergh’s wife. Her identity has been less and less hidden, as pictures of Asner on set have come out. There’s also a Rebecca Blunt twitter account that backs this up, including one of the above pictures (as well as a The Knick Christmas tree ornament). The account’s first tweet is a video of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, posted in 2015.
All that mystery aside, though, I was unable to find any link between Asner and Whisper of the Heart. Though the two “Take Me Home, Country Roads” scenes are similar in many ways, a direct chain of influence seems unlikely. Asner’s family is from West Virginia, so it would seem she came to her John Denver scene much more organically than Miyazaki would have. But to frame it as the film’s beating heart, with an unexpected performance by a young girl and a musical assist from a chorus of side characters? It’s simply a classic, beautiful example of great minds thinking alike.
The movie magic concocted in 1995 by Miyazaki and Kondo has a dark, real world undercurrent that ends this story on a bittersweet note. Hayao Miyazaki’s most prominent cinematic obsession, the portrayal of flight, appears briefly in Whisper of the Heart, during our entry into Shizuku’s fanciful story. Shizuku takes a brave step off a floating island and falls, until the wind catches her and she soars into the sky. Flight, especially by planes, is an ever-present element of Miyazaki’s work. Two of his films, Porco Rosso and The Wind Rises, are specifically about fighter planes.
Another man shared Miyazaki’s flight obsession: John Denver. Denver was a pilot, first taught by his Air Force veteran father. He earned his pilot’s license in 1976 and logged over 2,700 hours of experience. He was an avid collector of planes, including two Cessnas, a Learjet he used to fly to concerts, and a small, experimental Long EZ plane.
On October 12, 1997, Denver took his recently purchased Long EZ plane out for a Sunday flight near Pacific Grove, California. Denver lost control of the aircraft and crashed into Monterey Bay. He was killed instantly. A local man who witnessed the crash described the sound of Denver’s plane hitting the water: “It sounded like 100 tons of concrete dropped from the heavens.” Denver was 53.
Three months later, on January 21, 1998, Whisper of the Heart director Yoshifumi Kondo died of an aneurysm in a Tokyo hospital. Kondo had developed health problems including a punctured lung, and the backbreaking pace and workload of Studio Ghibli had exacerbated the issues. Miyazaki was devastated, saying, “You were such a patient one, like waiting silently for the snow to melt. Why, at this time, have you gone before me?” Kondo was 47.
Hayao Miyazaki, who had just had the biggest hit of his career with Princess Mononoke, announced that he would be retiring. His passion for moviemaking would eventually bring him back, his first of many un-retirements, to make Spirited Away. But his young friend and colleague’s death never left him. At the time, Miyazaki said he had lost his “right arm,” and his reconsideration of the working pace of the studio led to changes in their production style. The loss of Ghibli’s heir apparent also threw the studio’s future into uncertainty, an uncertainty that persists to this day.
The great tragedy of Whisper of the Heart is that it would, by necessity, be a singular film. A spin-off based on the character of the Baron was produced by Ghibli in 2002, The Cat Returns, but it’s a relatively minor installment that ultimately fails to capture the sincerity and charm of the original. Miyazaki continued to write stories of unsure, full-hearted young people, and several are masterpieces. But they’re distinctly Miyazaki masterpieces, films that are less concerned with the restraint and reality that Kondo proved so adept at showing.
It took two decades and a new generation of filmmakers to bring John Denver back into the limelight. 2017’s crop of Denver-featuring films really runs the gamut, all the way from extraterrestrial horror to British spy flick. But finally, with the pageant scene in Logan Lucky, the wonder and warmth of Yoshifumi Kondo’s only film returned to the big screen at last.