Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Pure Imagination” is a song that entire generations have grown up knowing. Written by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, the dreamy ode to the powers of creativity has fascinated viewers of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for decades. Gene Wilder’s film performance is full of both whimsy and a strange intensity, while the music backing him alternates between almost Christmas-like strings and runs of notes that are almost unsettling in their similarity to a horror movie soundtrack. It’s as if the song is meant to celebrate the best of what the human mind can come up with while still hinting at darker corners.
It’s that original dichotomy that makes “Pure Imagination” such a perfect song for interpretation. It’s Willy Wonka’s invitation to come join him in a world that’s different from the humdrum reality that Charlie Bucket has grown up with. It’s also a brief look into the mind of character whose mind works differently than that of the rest of us. There are so many layers in the original that almost any direction can be taken with a cover version. Dozens of artists have taken a stab at it. Here are five great takes on this film classic.
Hideaki Hori – Pure Imagination (Gene Wilder cover)
Jazz pianist Hideaki Hori delivers a beautiful instrumental version of the song, letting the melody stand on its own. It’s a tribute such a wonderful piece of music that it loses none of its power when the words are taken away. You can almost float away on Hori’s playing. Instead of whimsy with just a hint of darkness, this is a recording to put on when you want to dance slowly with someone you love.
Buckethead – Pure Imagination (Gene Wilder cover)
This cut from Buckethead‘s Giant Robot album cranks up the weirdness present in the background of the original. It’s almost an inverse of the movie version, which featured short sections of creepy notes, but was mostly a celebration of the purity of the power of the mind, thanks to the sweetness of Wilder’s vocals. In this track, however, what little sweetness there is comes from the sounds of nature in the background, while the robotic voice lets the listener know that some imaginations are alien to the rest of the world.
Lou Rawls – Pure Imagination (Gene Wilder cover)
If the movie version is an invitation to join Wonka in a world where worries can be put aside in favor of making people happy through the power of candy, then Lou Rawls‘s cover seems to be an invitation to find joy in a much more primal way. His sly, warm spoken intro seems to invite some lovely lady to join him in a evening of pleasure. He takes the children’s song, and by simply changing the delivery to match his own strengths, hints at happiness found not in sugar, but in romance. His journey promises love, and what could be better than that?
Primus – Pure Imagination (Gene Wilder cover)
Back in 2014, Primus did an entire Willy Wonka album. Their version of “Pure Imagination” sounds like it would be right at home in the movies. The instrumentation sounds like something Tarantino would put in a film just before all hell breaks loose. The guitars and drums provide a driving power to the song that pulls the listener along with it. Unlike the hidden musical gems Tarantino favors, however, the vocals in this version sound like they’d be right at home in a Tim Burton movie. The mix of dark fantasy in the vocals and the promise of violence in the music show a side to the song only hinted at in other versions, and prove that even if an imagination is understandable, it might not be safe. Jack Skellington would be proud of this one.
Lindsey Stirling, Josh Groban, and the Muppet – Pure Imagination (Gene Wilder cover)
Finally, there’s this perfect melding of ’70s movies memories. The performance itself is solid, with Josh Groban’s vocals as smooth as always and Lindsey Stirling performing beautifully on the violin. But this is about more than just the music. It’s the about the chaos in putting on this show. In true Muppet style, Miss Piggy tries to upstage Lindsey to get close to Josh, leading to the collapse of the whole thing, which is only held together by strings anyway. Jim Henson loved the power of creativity and what it could allow us to accomplish. So, truly, who among us hasn’t wished to see the characters that came from his imagination perform such as song? It also ends with pies to the faces of Josh and Lindsey, because there’s no other way the Muppets’ brand of zaniness could have allowed it to end. Pure joy.
The soundtrack for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory can be found on Amazon.