Songs on Screen: The Great Journey of Lonely Dreamers in America’s Rainbow Trilogy

06.26.15 2 years ago

Songs On Screen: HitFix recurring feature of tributes by writers to their favorite musical moments from TV and film. Check out all the entries in the series here. 

There are three great songs from American film, and they are all about rainbows.

“Over the Rainbow,” “Moon River” and “The Rainbow Connection” – are the three most quintessentially American songs ever to appear on screen, sung by three quintessentially American characters; and all three stand apart as plaintive cries of lonely souls dreaming of someplace far away..”Waiting round the bend” ”where troubles melt like lemondrops” for “the lovers, the dreamers and me”

The things these songs share tell you everything needs to know about the character of 20th Century America.  The things they don”t share tell you everything you need to know about how that character changed as the era wore on.

Let”s start at the top, and the very top it is. In 76 years since, no song has busted out of a film to have the impact of “Over the Rainbow.”  Probably no movie song has had half the impact of Judy Garland”s heartrending ballad. #1 on the AFI 100 songs list, covered by  and earning hits for every singer to enter a recording studio for the past 80 years (Josh Groban,  Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Art Tatum, Bily Ray Cyrus and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to name the first few at hand). President Kennedy reportedly would refuse to let Judy Garland off the phone (she was a regular caller) until she sang it to him.

Given that “Over the Rainbow” is all but our national song, it”s interesting to note what a solitary little song it is that we”ve chosen. Far from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “Over the Rainbow” could be the loneliest song ever written; a teenage girl singing very pointedly to herself (or to her dog) trying to convince herself that there”s a better world out there somewhere.  What makes it so wonderfully moving is how Ms. Garland (and its greatest interpreters since), amidst all that raw pain laid bare in the lyrics, they are able to summon this unstoppable belief in that world “where troubles melt like lemon drops” with those chords tripping over each other as the broken spirit soars “away upon the chimney tops.”  

If this song had just been released as a record, not as part of any film, one wonders what impact it would have had. No doubt it would have done very well; it”s a beautiful song. But even today, four score years later, it is impossible to hear it without thinking of that lonely farm girl with braids in her hair.  The song and the character combined with the medium itself to create something transcendent that was unique to its time. Dorothy imagining this magical land where blue birds fly was in many ways a stand in for the movie”s audiences, seeking to escape their troubles during the depression days, in these giant transporting palaces, watching a medium that was still very new and very magical.

It”s not surprising perhaps that these sentiments were penned by someone who had a particular better world in mind. Lyricist Yip Harburg was one of Hollywood”s most ardent campaigners for the Socialist Party of America. Prior to signing on to Oz, he had written the official anthem of the Depression Era”s downtrodden, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” (as well as the less solemn “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.”  Teaming up with Harold Arlen for the film, the pair got the fun songs out of the way, before settling in to try and come up with a ballad to introduce Dorothy at the start of the film.  Arlen struggled to find the right melody for the “sweeping” number he felt they needed, until it came to him while driving one night and he pulled over, raced into Schwab”s Drugstore, and jotted the immortal tune down on a napkin.

Seeing what a heart-breaking piece it is, it is no shock that many of the Oz”s hard-headed producers wanted to kill it in its cradle. When he first saw the film, studio boss Louis B. Mayer is said have hated it, thinking it too slow and mournful an opening to what was supposed to be a family film. At least three test screenings were held showing versions of the film with the song cut out. (Indeed, a later reprise of the song that Dorothy sings while in the Wicked Witch”s clutches was cut, never to return or to be seen again, the footage since lost). The song was only restored at the pleading of Associate Producer Arthur Freed, to whom the world owes an unpayable debt.

Once it was released, however, “Over the Rainbow” instantly gained its status as the ultimate film song, and the ultimate statement of how we as Americans thought of ourselves; lonely, solitary dreamers, whose belief in a better place can never quite be stamped out.

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22 years later, the producers of “Breakfast at Tiffany”s” were looking for a song to define Holly Golightly, the Texas farm girl/child bride escaped to New York City and reinvented as the most glamorous urbane free spirit in the international capital of glamour.

The similarities between “Over the Rainbow” and “Moon River” are pretty striking, even given that the latter song was consciously replicating the themes, tone, character establishing and, they hoped, success of the former.  But subtracting a few points for imitation, it is still remarkable how similar the two songs are, and how similar their journeys to immortality were.

In an interview with the BBC this year, composer Henry Mancini”s widow, Ginny, recalled how, like Harold Arlen before him, Mancini struggled for weeks to find a tune that would suit the ethereal Audrey Hepburn, who planned to sing it herself; Mancini”s task made harder by the fact that Hepburn was not a trained singer.

When he finally found the right, wistful melody, Mancini brought in veteran songwriter Johnny Mercer. A Savannah, Georgia native, Mercer, known for the lilting tone to his compositions that evoked a sleepy southern boyhood on songs like “Skylark” and “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Relating to Holly”s rural childhood, Mercer originally) wrote the lyrics about the Blue River he know from Georgia, but on learning there already was a song called “Blue River”, he changed it to Moon.  

Like “Over the Rainbow”, “Moon River” is a song the heroine sings to herself, for herself, comforting herself. In “Breakfast at Tiffany”s” Holly sits out on her fire escape, strumming the guitar and crooning to the birds and possibly “Cat.”  Her neighbor, Paul, hears the tune waft upstairs to him as he is just getting started writing a story about Holly. As we hear the first line of the song, we see the first line of Paul”s story, in case you weren”t getting the point, “There once was a very lovely, very frightened girl. She lived alone except for a nameless cat.”

As with “Over the Rainbow” “Moon River” is a solitary song about dreams of escape. It is interesting how in later years, escape songs are inevitably cast in terms of romantic drama, “Together we could break this trap/We”ll run to we drop, baby we”ll never go back,” etc. But with these two songs, both song by young women, romantic love plays no role and the escape dreamed of is private and personal; Holly wishes for the river itself as her companion. Again, for a song that would become a ubiquitous classic, it comes from a place of almost bottomless melancholy, that same theme of the lone dreamer, clinging to hope of something better out there striking this chord for millions over the years, in a song that, again, is so evocative of the melodies and language of the nation at this period, it could only be an American ballad.

However, unlike Dorothy Holly is not still on the farm; the dream has become much more complex than the simple longing for escape of “Oz.”  Holly has already escaped, and she sings from her Manhattan fire-escape.  The song”s throat catching signature moment, when she calls out to her “Huckleberry friend” is nostalgic.  Holly is both looking back sorrowfully at the simple life she left behind, presumably without all these rats and super-rats, and at the same time, longing to escape that life.  She is remembering a time when she could just wished for “such a lot of world to see.”  

And when we get to the Rainbow, “we”re after the same Rainbow”s end”, as Holly establishes her link with Dorothy before her, the song doesn”t soar and fly away, but seems to pull its sweater around itself, buttoning up to tuck the dream away. “Moon River” is about a young woman remembering the magic of her childhood dreams, even if she can no longer quite believe them today.

In 1939, an America that was largely either still living close to the land or a just generation removed from it, felt a deep connection with the farm girl yearning for some magical place she could almost picture. But by 1961, a nation well along in its migration to the cities felt a kinship with the lonely girl on the fire escape, mourning that that “same rainbow”s end” was still waiting ’round the bend, no matter how far she”d come.

Like “Over the Rainbow” before it, sad and mournful was not what the studios had in mind when they commissioned a musical inter. When the first cut of “Breakfast at Tiffany”s” ran long, the Paramount bosses decreed that the musical aside had to go, and it was only after strenuous lobbying by Hepburn that its place in the film was saved.  However, the studio”s distaste for it remained and Holly”s version was not on the soundtrack album, where the song is only represented by Mancini”s orchestral rendition with a chorus providing some vocals.

And like “Over the Rainbow” Moon River became an instant classic. It took home the Oscar for Best Original Song, revived the career of Andy Williams, who scored a gold record with it in 1962.  The song has since been covered by every single artist imaginable from  PJ Harvey to Louis Armstrong, Elton John, Willie Nelson, Eartha Kitt, Sarah Brightman, Oscar Peterson, Westlife, Dizzy Gillespie,…the list is without end.

****

18 years later, in 1979, recovering from the wounds of the 60″s and 70″s, America was finally ready to turn to rainbows again, in the hands of another lonely dreamer, this time a green one.  “The Muppet Movie” opens with a lone frog, sitting on a log in the middle of a swamp, strumming his guitar and once again, singing to himself, about rainbows. Songwriter Paul Williams who co-wrote “The Rainbow Connection” with lyricist Kenneth Ascher, later said, he was looking to write a song that would immediately establish, “Kermit is every frog.  Jimmy Stewart in ‘It”s a Wonderful Life.” We wanted to do the same thing with this opening song as Judy Garland”s “Over the Rainbow” that you see the depth of his soul, and the longing.”

“The amazing thing about the song,” he stated, “is that it's a song about questions instead of answers.” Indeed, while singing the self-contained, reflective piece Kermit shares Dorothy and Holly”s melancholy, with the unstoppable yearning for something better, the frog”s song is remarkably defensive, an argument with a world that had by and large given up on looking “Over the Rainbow.”  

From its very first line “Rainbow Connection” is a commentary on its predecessors. “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?”; “What”s so amazing that keeps us stargazing? And what do we think we might see?” Kermit is talking back to a world which had turned away from rainbows and the dreams they represent, a world too cynical to at this point take the farm girl”s plea in “Over the Rainbow” or the lost soul in the city”s mournful “Moon River” without many grains of salt, sneers and raised eyebrows.

This every frog”s awareness of just how far the world is removed from the land of “Oz” makes it all the more stirring and tear-rending when he rises up in response.   In a 2012 interview I did with Williams, he recalled the lyrics, “‘So we” been told and some choose to believe it.” At that moment he turns into the philosopher that has quiet, great expectations for life to be wonderful.

‘Who said that every wish would be heard and answered if wished on a morning star. Somebody thought of it and someone believed it.  Look what it”s done so far.” He basically paints a philosophy that is: your thoughts are powerful and what you dwell on and where you focus your love, you help create.”

The real heartbreaker comes in the song”s final passage which sweeps up as stirringly and with as much momentum as Dorothy found to evoke “the happy little bluebirds.” “Have you been half asleep, and have you heard voices?” Kermit demands of the naysayers, insisting that the land of dreams still lives and is still very real, if we will just be still and listen for it. The lovers, the dreamers and Kermit, all bound together.

The song, of course, immediately entered the pantheon, and remains universally beloved today, equally meaningful to children and adults alike. (I played it for my 1 year old this very morning and she instantly ceased her tantrum in progress and was mesmerized by the tune.)  But what perhaps is more interesting is what happened after this final chapter of the trilogy concluded, which is to say: nothing. It”s not been 36 years since the Rainbow splashed down in Kermit”s pond, and in the decades since his plaintive defense, rainbows have all but disappeared as an image in American song; the archetype of that lonely dreamer has yet to produce another song to touch the world on this scale. And in American film the “lonely dreamer” is rarely seen as the everyman anymore, but more generally painted as some quirky, somewhat broken exceptional being.  Just try and name the last great character of that mold.

Rainbows have been relegated to children”s sticker books, where they sway above unicorns. The idea of an earnest adult song about seeking the rainbow”s end seems almost from another world.

So what happened?  Was Kermit”s argument a doomed rearguard action against a world that had already turned to cynical? Or in a land whose culture was just about to enter an era of eternal immaturity from which it has yet to emerge, were lonely dreamers aching for escape, just too big deeply melancholy for an adolescent mindset to absorb?  Was Louis B, Mayer right, that these were no kind of songs for kids?  Could it be that these dreams were always about the escape offered by film, which with entertainment now so omnipresent, packaged and literally inches from your face at every turn, have films ceased to be about grabbing dreams out of the sky and pinning them to the screen?

Or have our dreams just become so small, so material and so close at hand, with nothing more than a price tag between us and them, that we no longer need rainbows, just credit cards.

Any of the above may be the case, but the fact that Dorothy, Holly Golightly and Kermit the Frog”s still capture the imagination in their songs that are as beloved now as they have every been. Take a look on your social networks or on Spotify, YouTube, Tumblr iTunes for these songs and you”ll find more versions of them, more tributes then there are stars in the heaven.

And  while theses songs live on and still burn so bright, perhaps the door has not quite shut on the lovers, the dreamers and us.

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