Soundtracks of Significance: Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory
A bit of a funny story regarding the first musical number in the 1971 classic Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory: there’s a rumor going round that Sammy Davis Jr. wanted to play the candy store owner Bill who sings “The Candy Man.” In that version of the story, director Mel Stuart rejected the request, claiming the presence of a star in that scene would be distracting. There’s an equally popular rumor that Sammy Davis Jr. recorded his rather popular cover of the song reluctantly, hating the song, and the only reason it was recorded was because composer Anthony Newley hated Aubrey Woods’s performance in the film so deeply that record executives had another version recorded to ensure a hit.
Both of those stories are supported mostly by nebulous fan sites and inaccessible academic journals. I can’t tell you which is true, but the two stories shed an interesting light on Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Of the film’s six musical numbers, only two, “Cheer Up Charlie” and the Oompa Loompa chants, appear to be performed by at least semi-professional singers. The other four, “The Candy Man,” “I’ve Got A Golden Ticket,” “I Want It Now,” and “Pure Imagination,” are performed as character pieces by their actors. And Sammy Davis Jr.’s popular recording of “The Candy Man” sounds far more like a 70s track than the version in the film thanks to a brassy, soulful arrangement. The recording matched the times, and became Sammy Davis Jr.’s only #1 hit.
The original recording is fairly unique for a song featured in one of the greatest musicals of all time. For one, Woods’s performance is incredibly nasal; the style matches more closely the singing you hear on a podcast than in a Gene Kelly musical. It’s also uniquely conversational; both the children and Woods break the melody to deliver lines in spoken word. Our introduction to this semi-musical is with a song that is only partially sung. But the melody, which is primarily performed with a backing string arrangement, is rhythmically complex. Try singing along, if you haven’t; you’ll get thrown off on the word “rainbow,” or the words “strawberry-lemon pie,” and once the phrase “who can take tomorrow” arrives, the entire line has changed tempo. Woods’s non-bravura performance makes the song seem easy; a star singer might indeed distract here.
It was “The Candy Man,” not “Pure Imagination,” that came to mind first when I heard of Gene Wilder’s passing on August 29. I suppose it was because it was so easy to imagine him as a man “who can take a sunrise and sprinkle it with dew.” The lyrics in this film are astounding even when the performances or melodies come across as trite (I’m one of those cold-hearted people mostly annoyed by “Cheer Up, Charlie” and “I’ve Got A Golden Ticket.”) Even in those, the “up and at ‘em, boy” line in “Cheer Up, Charlie” is a delicately clever line, connecting Mrs. Bucket to her young son’s world.
Of course, little comes close to the eerie, devastating ballad sung by Wilder. Before that point, the film is most successful as a satire; its sincere moments are squarely aimed at youth audiences, while the barbs pointed at the news media and the hunt for the Golden Tickets are completely hysterical for adults. Then “Pure Imagination” arrives to earn the film’s reputation for genuine wonder. Its first movement is arranged with that iconic staccato percussion (a xylophone? a glockenspiel?) and swelling strings. Wilder’s voice is thin, but warm. He doesn’t hesitate on it too long; the immediate thought is that the introduction is sung slowly, but it maintains a deliberate pace. When it falls into its second, faster movement, the joy is shared between audience and character.
It’s impossible to deny the way the visuals tie into this ballad; the chocolate river room is absolutely the most gorgeous set in the film, and Wilder’s physical performance is wonderful. His facial expressions are not those of a salesman, but of a man caught in his own fantasy of this place. And his dancing is deeply charming, recalling the musicals of old without forcing bravura movement. Even as the song decrescendos and slows into a fade for its final lines, it doesn’t approach melodrama. Credit Wilder.
The songs of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory have lingered in popular consciousness longer than their influence on film; modern musicals don’t sound like this, they sound more like radio rock. But their intelligence and craft surpass the standard concepts of beauty in performance. The songs in this film capture the imagination without bravura singing, and that sets the film apart from most popular musicals. But if you can listen to Wilder sing the phrase, “If you want to view paradise…” without acknowledging that the man could make some beautiful noise, you’re a greater snob than I.