One of the more onerous rituals of the annual Academy Awards telecast is the attempt to recreate onstage at the Kodak Theater the “lightning in a bottle” incandescence of the nominated songs. Though backed by glitzy production sets and dancers, the songs are stripped clean of their movie contexts. Whether sung in the movie itself, underscoring a montage, or embedded in a credit crawl, they were written to reflect, even enhance, the scene for which they were composed. In this respect the songs are close cousins to the best of Broadway musicals. Sometimes, these three-minute ballads even escape their celluloid bonds, becoming a part of American pop culture.
There is no song in all of American cinema that pulls you into its unfolding drama as successfully as Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” from the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. But, this universally beloved song was very nearly cut from the movie.
Legend has it that after a preview, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer felt that the song “slowed down the picture” and “our star sings it in a barnyard.” True, it is sung very early in the movie, at a time when much of the audience had barely settled into their seats. In any case, a reprise of the song was cut from the finished film. An additional chorus (audio only), sung by Garland, trapped in the wicked witch’s castle, was released many years later in a deluxe edition of the soundtrack. The accompanying picture is believed lost.
A recent discussion of Over the Rainbow by Renee Montagne on the NPR morning news (in a version sung by the late Hawaiian, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole) is such an extreme departure from the classic Garland rendition, yet so successful, that it becomes a veritable re-creation of the song and a template for many cover versions. I began to consider why this song, above all other movie songs, has had such an enduring presence in American culture, so I decided to do a YouTube search, a kind of video jukebox, to hear a handful of the many variations possible. This took me to an earlier NPR story about how and why this song became a rite of passage for generations of American singers—a heartfelt “internal monologue” on life’s aspirations and dreams.
Here is the scene from Wizard of Oz that we all know and love, sung by the sixteen year-old star. Embedding is disabled but just click on the hotlink here and it will come up:
The Recording Industry of America (RIAA) and the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) made a survey in 2001 to determine the most important Songs of the Century, a list of 365 songs that best reflect American culture, irrespective of source. Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land was number three; Bing Crosby’s White Christmas was number two; and Judy Garland’s Over the Rainbow was number one. Here is the complete list:
The American Film Institute also ranked it number one in their list of movie songs," 100 Years . . . 100 Songs."
In an NPR story from October 2008, commentator Rob Kapilow and Performance Today host Fred Child explore the construction of this two-minute masterpiece written by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y. Harburg. Even if you decide to not delve deeper into the video jukebox ahead, you will find this profile of America’s most beloved song very worth your time. It’s a walk through a lovely musical maze.
Nothing can be further afield from Garland’s wistful version than that by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, a 500-pound plus ukulele-playing native Hawaiian.
His version, emerging out of nowhere some 17 years ago, not only offered an unlikely backing instrument but also created a whole new emotional context for the familiar lyrics. It was the recent Renee Montagne NPR story from December 6 that launched me on this internet exploration.
A single take of the song made very late in the night in 1988, buried for five years in the recording studio’s archive, then released in 1993 as part of a disc destined to become the largest selling CD ever of Hawaiian music—and with now more than 15 million hits on the YouTube version; it ends with Israel’s ashes scattered at sea. (Once again the embed is disabled by request but the video is here):
Of all the “covers” of this Garland anthem none can approach, for transcendent beauty almost channeling the tragic lady herself, than the one by Rufus Wainwright. In 2006 and 2007 the multi-faceted singer made an international tour, with a stop at the Hollywood Bowl that re-created Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. He returned for an encore performance in late November of this year. This time, instead of a 36-piece orchestra, there was only he and a piano. In this video he is accompanied by his mother, folk musician Kate McGarrigle, who died a year ago this month. His tribute to her is in the year end issue of Time magazine, its annual "Farewell" homage:
Not all versions I have listened to have had the compelling immediacy of Wainwright’s. Some have been positively bizarre, such as this one by Mr. Blue Suede Shoes himself, Gene Vincent.
Almost as unlikely is a version by a blues rocker of the next generation, Eric Clapton. I doubt that you will want to drink deeply of all of these, but they are all revelatory of the performing artist, a kind of spiritual litmus. This one, oddly, intentionally or not, seems to me to have a tint of the cabaret lounge lizard, an unexpected side of the great guitarist/songwriter.
While the Clapton version ends with a guitar flourish, the one by Jeff Beck is completely instrumental. If you’ve never imagined the poetic lyrics as pure guitar solo, well, this one is revelatory. The huge festival audience is quiet til the final, elusive chord.
There is another instrumental interpretation that fulfills every bit of the sophisticated hints made in the NPR look at the song’s construction. It is a solo piano rendering by Keith Jarrett from a 1984 Tokyo concert. If you can imagine the gentle Franz Schubert in improvisation of one of his 700 plus lieder, this would be it. It is nearly six minutes long and the journey it takes you on is its own ”yellow brick road.” Here is the Jarrett who also crosses over to Bach and Shostakovich.
Despite the real world success of several American Idol winners, most of the show’s performers attempt to channel another artist. Here is Jason Castro evoking (it seems to me) merely a shadow of the hulking presence of Israel Kanakawiwo’ole.
The four-voice group, Celtic Woman, much beloved by PBS specials and fundraisers, presents a unique a cappella version from a concert at Slane Castle in their motherland.
And here is an upbeat, clean-cut Americana version from the current hit, ensemble TV show, Glee:
Over the Rainbow is so resilient an evocation of hope and affirmation that it seems more than able to support any amount of idiosyncratic interpretation. A federation of ukulele players calling themselves The Ukulele Underground made this tribute to one of their lost members, 19 year-old Vincent Daniel Rooney, who died on July 6, 2009 of muscular dystrophy. Affectionately known as Captain Google, he is fleetingly seen at the end. This great American anthem here seems like the song of angels.