It seems like pure imagination now, but Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory hasn’t always been the generation-spanning, cultural behemoth it has since become. Director Mel Stuart described the film’s reception in 1971 as ‘inauspicious’ and ‘lukewarm.’ He’s probably undercooking it slightly – in the same sense that Augustus Gloop might have overdone the chocolates slightly.
On the same weekend that Willy Wonka was released, more people went to watch Ben: a film about a detective on the hunt for a pack of killer rats. The Million Dollar Duck, a film described by critic Roger Ebert as “one of the most profoundly stupid movies I’ve ever seen”, also outperformed Willy Wonka at the box office that year. It ended up being the 23rd highest-grossing movie of 1971, and only just broke even. By 1977, when Paramount’s distribution rights lapsed, they didn’t bother renewing them. “Nobody had any idea there would be a Wonka resurgence,” Stuart later reflected.
Yet a resurgence there was.
Although the film benefited hugely from the explosion of home video in the 1980s, it stayed in the public consciousness thanks to its soundtrack. Described as a ‘home run’ of a song by Stuart, ‘The Candy Man’ was the first Wonka song to achieve success. It was covered by Sammy Davis Jr. in 1972, which landed the singer his first (and only) U.S. number one. It also went on to become a staple of songwriter Anthony Newley’s live sets, who recorded his own version a year before Davis. By 1998, ‘The Candy Man’ had reached such a level of cultural significance that it was parodied in The Simpsons at the height of the show’s popularity. Meanwhile, the Bavarian pastiche Oompa-Loompa song has been reprised and repurposed more times than I could begin to describe here.
But it is perhaps the film’s spiritual heartbeat – ‘Pure Imagination’ – that has most helped to prolong its appeal across generations. A dreamy encapsulation of Wonka’s raison d’être, it was first covered by Bob James and then Lou Rawls in the 1970s. It has since been reimagined, sampled and remixed by more than 200 artists. Everyone from Mariah Carey to Fiona Apple has taken a bite from ‘Pure Imagination’s psychedelic soundscapes.
Sounding like the hungover, chocolate-munching relation of the bright, starry-eyed 60s, Willy Wonka’s esoteric 1971 soundtrack typifies the dark underbelly beneath the surface of this film. That dichotomy is a reflection of Stuart’s initial feelings on the novel. “I felt that it wasn’t just a children’s book, but rather a complex morality tale”, he wrote in 2002. Besides quoting Shakespeare, Wilde and Keats in the script, Stuart also took the curious decision to include an image of Nazi officer Martin Bormann in the film, depicting a Paraguayan con artist who forged a fake golden ticket. Clearly there’s more to Wonka than meets the eye.
One scene in particular manages to tow that line between family film and psychedelic freakfest in spectacular fashion. It happens when Wonka invites the gang of golden ticket winners to take a boat trip down the factory’s chocolate river. As the SS Wonkatania enters a tunnel, they’re exposed to what Stuart labelled a ‘montage of evil’ on the walls. He spliced together footage of traffic tunnels in Munich with a series of dream-like, disturbing images: a morose still of the evil Slugworth character, a man with a centipede crawling across his face, a chicken’s head being cut off by an axe. “People still question whether that montage was too extreme,” Stuart would muse – probably with good reason – almost 40 years later.
The scene is made even more terrifying by its soundtrack. Listening to ‘The Wondrous Boat Ride’ now, it’s difficult to understand how a piece of music like that made it into a Hollywood picture – then, now, or ever. With its Psycho-esque orchestral slashes and ominous spoken word accompaniment, it feels more like a French avant-garde piece from the 60s than a song in a family film. If ‘Pure Imagination’s reference point was ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘Boat Ride’ was more ‘Revolution 9’. It’s perhaps of little surprise that Marilyn Manson reprised the boat scene in the music video for his 1995 song ‘Dope Hat’. He’s an ardent fan of the film, and even wanted to reprise the role of Wonka in a remake.
Yet despite the soundtrack’s everlasting appeal, director Stuart initially didn’t want the film to feature any music at all. “I was not enthusiastic about having musical numbers in the movie,” he said. “I was wary of adding musical numbers of any kind, thinking it would take away from the sense of reality I wanted to impart to the story. If anything, I thought the actors could chant poems in the manner of today’s rap, rather than perform them as songs.” A rapping Willy Wonka. It really could have happened.
Stuart eventually gave in to the idea of including music in the film, and he would later acknowledge that the music was a ‘vital element’ of the final version. Fast forward to 2023, and there are no such quandaries for the upcoming Wonka prequel. Cemented in the minds of the public as a musical film, it is said to lean heavily on songs from the original. Timothée Chalamet was reportedly offered the role of Wonka without an audition, based on YouTube videos of his singing prowess alone. Meanwhile, Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy is a suitably left-field choice to score the soundtrack, which has already been nominated for several awards ahead of its December 8th release.
Back in 1971, when Willy Wonka was struggling to break even, very few would have believed that a Hollywood blockbuster prequel would follow more than 50 years later. “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams,” the chocolatier told the golden ticket holders upon entering his fantastical factory. It is the music they made back then which ensures the dream of Wonka lives on today.
Words: Nick Harland