“The Rainbow Connection” – Kermit the Frog (The Muppet Movie), 1979.
Given that home video has become a multi-billion-dollar business over the last 35 years, generating far more revenue for Hollywood studios than its precious theatrical releases, it’s hard to imagine that there was a time when any kind of home viewing of films was considered piracy, and that the infamous Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America once went before Congress and described the VCR as “to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.” In the 80’s, the VCR was a keystone of growing up. It was a ticket to other worlds, in that now you had a permanent passport to those favorite adventures that otherwise you’d experience once in the theater and then have to wait about five years to see it again, chopped up with commercials on network TV, if you were lucky. Even a Betamax machine (yes, my parents guessed wrong, and the phrase “sorry, we only have that on VHS” was heard often at our downtown video store) let you record, play, replay and scrutinize to your heart’s content. There are a few formative movies that I recall watching rather obsessively when we were becoming the first generation to be able to do that: Bond, Mary Poppins, Superman, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Popeye, and of course, The Muppet Movie.
The story of how Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and the rest of the gang came together to put on The Muppet Show week after week begins with Kermit alone in his home swamp, strumming a banjo, singing about dreams. He’s content to remain there until a lost talent agent played by Dom DeLuise spurs him to pursue those dreams to Hollywood, meeting up with familiar faces in typical fourth wall-breaking, cameo-packed hijinks while avoiding the machinations of the evil Doc Hopper (Charles Durning) who wants Kermit as spokesfrog for his national chain of frog’s legs restaurants. The half-dozen odd songs written by Paul Williams never quite manage to live up to the promise set by the opening number, but in fairness, how could they. “The Rainbow Connection” is lovely, hopeful, meditative and even a little sad. Hearing it always puts me back in the living room of the old house in front of that old wood-panel-encased picture tube, clinging to the remote that attached to the VCR by a long cord and had only three controls: a pause button and a toggle between reverse and fast forward. Primitive, perhaps, but enough to listen to Kermit’s opening number ad absurdum.
One of my more popular posts of the last couple of months was entitled “Don’t explain away the magic.” Somewhat uniquely among forms of art, a deepening love of movies usually fosters a deeper investigation into how they are made, diminishing the magic while ironically strengthening your appreciation for them. (I say uniquely as loving books, for example, doesn’t necessarily lead to a fascination with grammar and sentence structure.) There are few special effects, optical or computerized, whose basic principles I don’t understand. The shot of Kermit riding a bicycle after he sets out on his journey, however, continues to astonish me. Partly because the Muppets were always so endearing, we wanted them to be real. Fundamentally we knew it was Jim Henson or Frank Oz beneath the frame flapping the lips of a felt construction, but when Kermit was giving his dinner order to waiter Steve Martin or shrinking from mad scientist Mel Brooks, we leaped over the valley of doubt and disbelief. As a person who revels in telling stories, whether in the form of novels, shorts, 140-character bursts or even short-form nonfiction like this, the ability to make your audience want to take that leap with you is the greatest, most elusive goal. Most people can’t do it. In hands lesser than those of Henson et al, the Muppets never would have worked; they would have been simply the latest variation on Punch & Judy, glaring fakes with obvious strings. Yet they establish such credibility that even if you’ve never seen a Muppet show before, the first moments of this movie where Kermit picks up his banjo and starts to sing remain spellbinding. You focus then on the meaning of the song and forget that it’s being performed through patches of fabric and glue. And its idea of finding the ability to walk from idle dreams to unshakable certitude over an elusive rainbow road, makes absolute sense.
I’ve performed “The Rainbow Connection” at a handful of karaoke bars over the years, and my passable Kermit impression is usually good for a handful of laughs from anyone who can be bothered to look up from their drinks. When I’m singing it, certainly I’m mindful of doing the Kermit voice properly, but I’m always putting just as much emphasis into what the song means. In The Muppet Movie, Kermit and friends set out to follow their dreams, and discover that achieving them never looks like how you expected. Many of us will be frightened out of the pursuit exactly for this reason; we can’t bear the idea that the truth won’t resemble our meticulously constructed fantasy. Maybe you won’t submit your novel to anyone because you’re afraid it won’t be a million-dollar bestseller and a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt and Scarlett Johansson. Maybe you won’t even hit “publish” on your blog post because you worry it won’t be a viral sensation that gets more hits than “Gangnam Style.” Is that really the best alternative, though? Burning away the years pining for a future you don’t have the guts to go after? A swamp filled with regret is a lonely place to spend your one go-around on this planet. Because it’s gonna be a reaaaaaaaaaally long wait for Dom DeLuise to show up.