There can hardly be a human being alive, living in a western society who hasn’t, at some point in their life, seen “The Wizard of Oz”.
In so many ways it was a great film. Released when colour was on the cusp of going mainstream, the black and white of Dorothy’s time in Kansas was the perfect juxtaposition for the bright colours of her trip down the Yellow Brick Road.
Then there’s the characters of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow, each representing one of the neuroses that, to a greater or lesser extent, live inside us all. The lovable on-screen characterisations help us come to terms with ourselves.
And the wizard behind the curtain, telling us to look away and ignore the person behind the curtain, is a parable that could have been written about the world in the late 2010s, when so much is artifice, so little is real.
All that would be enough on its own to make a great movie, but we haven’t even considered Dorothy’s red shoes, the contribution of Toto and the role of the witches.
If you’ve seen the film, and even if you’re one of the few who hasn’t, one of the greatest songs of all time will certainly stick in your memory — “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (at least that’s how the song is usually known…its formal title is “Over the Rainbow” but almost nobody calls it that.)
Back when movie stars really were stars, not the pale imitation of stardom we see today, the young Judy Garland was perfect for the role of Dorothy.
Judy Garland even sang the songs herself in the movie, which is more unusual than you might think in the early days of Hollywood. It’s one of the few films of the era which didn’t have the un-credited Marnie Nixon dubbed onto the soundtrack in place of a leading lady’s reedy tones.
But with Judy Garland, there was no need. She gave the performance of her life in “The Wizard of Oz”.
Harold Arlen wrote the score for “The Wizard Of Oz”. One of the more prolific contributors to the Great American Songbook, he penned classics we still recognise today like “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive”, “That Old Black Magic” and “Let’s Fall In Love”.
Yip Harburg wrote the lyrics for “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, but whereas Harold Arlen’s name is still whispered in reverential tones out of respect for his genius as a composer, his career was badly derailed by Senator Joseph McCarthy and his search for “reds under the bed” in 1950s America.
On the flimsiest of evidence, Yip Harburg was banned from working in the film and music industries for over a decade.
But in a movie full of great songs — “We’re Off to See the Wizard”, “If I Only Had a Brain”, “Follow The Yellow Brick Road” to name just some of them — the stand-out song for me is “(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow”.
When I first saw “The Wizard of Oz”, almost certainly on the BBC at some point over the school Christmas holidays, this song really symbolised my youthful hope that there was something beyond the greyness of life in Glasgow during the ’70s and ‘80s.
As it turns out I’m still waiting for the Technicolor part of my life to start, but I don’t hold that against “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. It’s still one of the best songs ever written.
It’s not just me who thinks so. The Recording Industry Association of America, together with the National Endowment for the Arts, voted it the best song of the 20th Century.
It won an Oscar for Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.
And the American Film Institute voted it the greatest movie song of all time in their 100 year anniversary review of the industry.
In my view, even those accolades understate the brilliance of “Over the Rainbow”.
Harold Arlen wrote some gorgeous tunes for “The Wizard Of Oz”. But it’s Yip Harburg’s lyrics that make “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” such a special song.
Human beings are dreamers. We all want to be somewhere else, doing something else, and sometimes with someone else.
But we’ve got mortgages, families, responsibilities, bills to pay and a position in society to keep up. Even people who consider themselves outside mainstream society have their position as an outsider to keep up, so there’s no escape!
The sense of wanting to be somewhere else, dreaming of a happier place, is exactly what Yip Harburg so beautifully conjures up in his lyrics…
Some day I’ll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Far above the chimney tops
That’s where you’ll find me
I’m not sure a more beautiful set of lyrics has been written in the English language. There’s a delicacy to them, but an inner strength too. A determination to find a better place, combined with an acceptance that we haven’t yet found the sense of comfort we’ve been seeking for so long. We haven’t yet found where we belong, but that won’t deter us from trying to find it.
It’s a dream, of course (both literally and figuratively in the context of the movie). But it’s more than a dream. It’s a conviction. It’s an expression of faith that there is something better ahead. “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is a comforting companion on our long and arduous journey towards happiness.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” has been covered many times, but there are three stand-out versions of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s classic.
Of course, there’s the original from “The Wizard of Oz”, so perfectly performed by Judy Garland, which you can find here… https://youtu.be/PSZxmZmBfnU
There’s another version which is truly brilliant, although the first time I heard the idea I was sceptical too…imagine a very large Polynesian gentleman man singing “Over the Rainbow”, whilst accompanying himself on the ukulele.
It sounds like everyone’s worst nightmare (got that picture of George Formby out your head yet?) but it captures better than any other version the message of the brighter tomorrow for which all of humankind strives. That version is by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and you can find it here… https://youtu.be/V1bFr2SWP1I
My favourite version of the song, though, is the Eva Cassidy version which I’ve linked to below.
Eva Cassidy has her own tragic story as well, but I don’t think any version captures the elements of poignancy and yearning in Yip Harburg’s lyrics as well as hers.
And that’s the definition of a great song. Three very different treatments of exactly the same song. The differences in the delivery and the musical arrangement are minimal, yet three different people each capture a different essence of the meaning hidden within this beautiful song.
Whichever version is your favourite, I hope any troubles you have today melt away like lemon drops. And that one day, you discover where your rainbow’s been hiding all your life.
Here’s Eva Cassidy, with her poignant and haunting version of “(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow”. The music was written by Harold Arlen and lyrics by the sadly-overlooked talent that is Yip Harburg…enjoy…
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/2BqIAzD5IAUAqd3f39Dz5V
(Unfortunately, Spotify doesn’t have the Eva Cassidy version of the song at the time of writing, so this link will take you to the perfectly charming Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version instead.)
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.