Which version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ will triumph? Chamber pop-prince Rufus Wainwright or gentle giant Israel ‘Iz’ Kamakawiwo’ole? You decide!
‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ is probably most associated with Judy Garland, and with the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. The song was written by legendary American songwriter Harold Arlen and lyricist E.Y Harburg specifically for the film, a tale of a dreamer who wishes for a new world beyond the drabness of her own. Since the film, the song has been interpreted by others many times. In at least two separate shows, I’ve seen it done to great effect; first by Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir who I saw in 1992, and then by the Flaming Lips in 1999 while touring their the Soft Bulletin album. Both times, the crowd was hushed hanging on every note. I think it’s because no matter who is performing this song, it strikes a chord with everyone. I think everyone at times hopes that somewhere, there is a world that is a happy and safe place, that it is the place that our own world should be. As such, it’s pretty universal song that transcends time and genre. It’s been recorded by artists as diverse as Ray Charles, Carly Simon, opera singer Placido Domingo, and cartoon punk band Me First & the Gimme Gimmes, among many others.
But, for our purposes today, which two versions of the song listed here will gain your vote?
This version of the song has graced the soundtracks of a few films, much like the original version served as the centerpiece to The Wizard of Oz. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole infused it with passion, albeit as a Hawaiian folk song and not a Hollywood show tune. The man himself released it along with his album Facing Future in 1993. Since then, it’s appeared on a number of recent soundtrack albums such as 50 First Dates, Fred Claus, Meet Joe Black, and many others. The track is a stripped down take on the tune, with just Iz’s voice and ukulele accompaniment. His voice is both hushed and strong at the same time, and the starkness of the arrangement brings out the gentle simplicity of the song, and its connection with childhood innocence which lays at the heart of it. The spirit of the tune, which is really about optimism, is further accentuated by adding a bit of Bob Thiele’s “What A Wonderful World” into the mix, which was the subject of another song rendition showdown not too long ago.
Iz would have his career and life cut short in 1997 at the age of 38 due to a weight-related illness. But, this version of the classic song is a worthy tribute to his talent as a musician and interpreter.
It’s been firmly established that Judy Garland is one of Rufus Wainwright’s musical heroes, and it’s also of no surprise perhaps that his version is closer to the Garland original which was first recorded in October 1938, and released the next year to become her signature tune until her death in 1969. In the Wainwright version, recorded for his Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall album in 2007, the song lives and breathes again, imbued as it is with Garland’s dramatic delivery . The concert and live album reproduces Garland’s 1961 performance at the same venue note for note, featuring his own soaring tenor against lush strings and sumptuous orchestral backing.
Because he sticks so closely to that latter-day Garland arrangement, he captures something of a different take on the song at the same time. No longer is the song about an innocent looking for a better world, but rather it is the yearning of someone who has been run over by life, scarred by bitter experience, knowing that such a world is out of reach. The song becomes less the optimistic vision, and more the tale of disappointment and weariness. It is the song of someone who knows that the innocence once enjoyed, and the dreams that once came so easily are gone for good. Perhaps this idea is also underscored by the fact that Wainwright is conjuring a fantasy world of his own, a glitzy tin-pan alley Hollywood Musical world which has long since gone, and perhaps never really existed.
So, good people. Which version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ gets your vote? Is it the folky simplicity of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version? Or, is it the lush theatrical Rufus Wainwright version? As always: you decide!