1978: MCA MCAD2-11649
If youre cringing at seeing this here, let me tell you: its GREAT. I realize its a product of the dreaded disco era, and it has many touches of that throughout, BUT! This baby has Quincy Joness sparkle all over it and there really isnt much you could call filler on this album. A few of the plot-development tracks are weak by comparison to the standout numbers, but only by that comparison, and the ratio is heavily weighted on the side of the latter. Besides which there are many aspects to this album (beyond its self-evident merits) worth noting.
For starters, theres the Diana-&-Michael issue: this film is after all the only place we get to see them onscreen together at the same time. Also, I think Michael was still on his first nose at this time (1978), but theres a peanut-butter cup over it maybe that was a kind of bandage from the first plastic surgery? Well, regardless of his rhinoplastering, he delivers a kick-ass Ease On Down The Road with Diana, and even in the film its pretty tight; on the soundtrack album this song gets a better production and length, letting the groove continue longer than the film does. Michael also delivers a mighty hot You Cant Win, with an ending coda that earned my lasting respect for his singing prowess (at least for what it was at the time).
Overall the songcrafting is solid and diverse, if not particularly adventurous, and unquestionably there are some mighty big names involved: Ashford & Simpson, Luther Vandross, Quincy Jones, and of course Charlie Smalls (the composer for the stage version). Regardless of their written merits, many of the tracks here do benefit greatly from their performers, especially the main singers. Mabel King is sizzlin as Evilene on No Bad News, as are the Winkies and in fact all the musicians: that track puffs along like a bumptious big-city strutter on a hot summer afternoon sidewalk. (Richard Pryor is kind of the antithesis of all the good stuff here, and Nipsey Russell is probably doing very well but really isnt my thing.) Ted Rosss Im a Mean Ole Lion is a performance to aspire to, full of swagger and bravado with a slick strut between lines, and he delivers it with only a little stiffness in the film (the costume may be to blame, I concede). Lena Hornes accent is a bit odd for Glinda (although I guess she is the Good Witch of the South here so maybe its appropriate), but when she gets to sing Believe In Yourself to Dorothy after Dorothys tearful and tender delivery of it to her friends, Horne really conveys a sense of power, especially as she starts off so gently (her onscreen performance is, ah, a bit over the top, it must be said). Jackson Ive already mentioned, but Ross deserves especial commentary.
Im not a Diana Ross fan (not that I dont like her or her voice, as both are quite lovely Im just not a fan), really only having gotten into her classic disco icon Love Hangover, so it was a surprise to discover that I really love what shes done in both the film and the soundtrack album. I dont know how Dorothys songs would sound as sung by anyone else because I simply cant imagine it its like having anyone but Lynda Carter portray Wonder Woman. Her portrayal of Dorothy onscreen is so convincing that I have to remind myself that this woman is a Big Star in the music biz (it helps that she rarely makes eye contact with the camera, thus reinforcing Dorothys shyness and discomfort, and then theres that do making her nearly anonymous), and Ross pours that into Dorothys songs here with such thoroughness that I find myself crying while listening to a song that in almost anyone elses hands would probably sound like a super-schlock parade of melodramatic musical clichés. If I needed proof that Diana Ross can sing *and* act, simultaneously, its here in the songs which so move me even without the visual components.
The musical/orchestral performance level on the entire album is eyebrow-raisingly excellent, covering a delightful range of styles without a weak moment, but there are some standout tracks worth mentioning even above and beyond that acknowledgementthe Emerald City Sequence (Green, Red, and Gold), for example, in which Quincy Jones pulls out all the stops (and lets the brass go apeshit) for Gold and even has a cute cameo in the filmed version. And Poppy Girls is a sweet, slow funk track that stands on its own out of the soundtrack.
Those who know me well know that I associate the epiphanic (if heavily disco-rhythmed, clap-track and all) track Brand New Day with snowfall, odd as that may seem. The Liberation Ballet section is probably my favorite part, after its langorous start erupts into the uplifting frenzy of activity that carries the track on to its triumphant end (and I love the final vocal rejoicing, which is incomplete and submerged under onscreen activity in the film but makes me dance passionately here).
The closing track, Home, is still one of the most powerfully tear-jerking recordings, for me. Diana Ross nails it commandingly, and Quincy Jones takes us on an emotional rollercoaster before giving us mighty wings and taking us home with Dorothy. In the film the end of the track suffers from an anticlimactic closing shot, but not before Ross gives us the song simply facing the camera and singing with her eyes flooded with light and tears an unexpectedly stark and devastatingly effective presentation.
A final note: compare this albums cover painting to that of The Wizwho copied whom?
Comments © 2005 Mark Ellis Walker, except as noted, and no claim is made to the images and quoted lyrics.