Free spirit Kate (Christina Raines) has just left her domineering husband and fallen for an out of work musician, Sam (Cliff DeYoung). At 20 she learns she is pregnant and going to die, soon, of Osteosarcoma. Rather than lose her leg, she chooses to live life on her own terms, recording her thoughts on life, love, loss and dying young on a tape recorder. When her archive of tapes is stolen, her pleas for their return are featured on a local news story that goes nationwide. She completes her recordings for her young daughter a second time before succumbing to cancer. Featuring the music of John Denver, Sunshine give an intimate look at Kate’s struggle to make sense of the death sentence she’s facing, while leading the life she wants to set as a model for her daughter.
The Production: 3.5/5
At the time of its broadcast in November of 1973, Sunshine was the most watched TV drama ever. Kate’s story is based on the real life events and recordings of Jacquelyn Helton. Per Wikipedia: “Sunshine was based on the life of Jacquelyn M. “Lyn” Helton (September 13, 1951 – November 7, 1971). In 1969, shortly after giving birth to her daughter Jennifer, the 18-year-old Helton was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Helton, along with her photographer/ musician husband Tom Helton and her baby daughter, moved from Green River, Wyoming to Denver, Colorado to seek medical treatment. Helton began to record her thoughts about dying and leaving her husband and baby behind on audio tape and written journal with the goal of writing a book to help other dying people. In July 1971, Helton’s tape recorder was stolen. The local news story of the theft and her journal project was picked up by networks as a human interest story and run in national news coverage. She was gifted with a replacement tape recorder and continued her project.”
What makes Sunshine so special in the pantheon of Made for TV movies is twofold. First, it’s an unflinching look at a complicated life that has a very real ending. Kate’s life is a mess. She’s just left one man, is carrying his baby, and instantly falls for another who can’t even afford rent. Her relationship with Sam is caustic at times, they trade barbs and insults despite their physical attraction and his insistence that she fight her cancer and her unwillingness too. It’s a classic no win situation, and none of us can say how we would react if we were in their shoes.
Second is the neat integration of Denver’s catalog of hits. Each is redone for the film but retains the signature groundedness that he is famous for. The real Lyn Helton was apparently a huge fan and very much lived the mountain loving free life that Denver’s songs lionize. The film opens with Kate’s wake and the spreading of her ashes on a mountain top. The rest of the film shows just what this lifestyle and environment meant to her, and how Denver’s music provided the sound track to her life.
3D Rating: NA
This is Twilight Time’s first foray into bringing TV content to Bluray. They and Redwind Productions spent considerable expense making a new 4k capture of the original elements from the original production. This Bluray presentation retains the analogue TV 1.33 ratio. but contains significantly more image data than any broadcast could have provided. That said, the original content was moderately budgeted and produced for television, and has visible grain throughout and more when shot in dark environs. The good news is that it’s fairly sharp and free from halos. Colors are mostly muted but pop nicely in the mountain landscape sequences. It looks better than some other made for TV content I’ve reviewed lately, but it’s genuinely a product of its era.
Strictly 2 channel stereo here. Denver’s songs sound terrific, and the focus on dialogue is spot on, befitting of the broadcast origins.
My Sweet Lady
Poems, Prayers And Promises
Take Me Home, Country Roads
Sunshine On My Shoulders
Special Features: 1.5/5
Not much here I’m afraid. There are graphical title cards for each chapter, highlighting Denver’s songs, plus the original TV trailer.
I personally know what it’s like to be faced with your own mortality due to illness before you are 20. I respect Kate’s/Lyn’s choice to live her final days as she sees fit. Fortunately for me my scare was not terminal, but I can say from that experience that an event like this helps you define who you are, what you believe, and how you want to proceed in life better than any other factor. Sunshine helped bring that life experience to millions of people, and it has taken nearly 40 years to get this story back out there for a new generation. Denver’s music still stands the test of time too, as evidenced in Country Road’s resurgence in American popularity along with the recent video game Fallout ’76. We could all use more delight at and passion for the things he cared about deeply, and his simple but strong messages.
Twilight Time and Redwind should be commended for taking the risk to bring something that has been out of the limelight back into the current discussion, and in having done so with care and passion.