It’s the number-one fantasy movie of all time, according to the American Film Institute. And when the AFI released their list of the top 100 movie music, The Wizard of Oz was right at the top, red slippers all a-glitter.
That’s a tough act to follow, admits Canadian ex-pat Justin Gray, who co-wrote the song for the new L. Frank Baum adaptation, Oz” The Great And Powerful, in theatres Friday. None other than Mariah Carey sings his “Almost Home,” the showpiece of the film.
Director Sam Raimi’s movie, a prequel of sorts, tells the story of Oscar “Oz” Diggs (James Franco), a Kansas con man with a kind heart. After being swept away by a tornado, Oscar finds himself hailed as the savior in the magical but troubled land of Oz. Glinda (Michelle Williams), Evanora (Rachel Weisz) and Theodora (Mila Kunis) are the three beguiling witches who help him find the wisdom and goodness in himself.
So, is Gray a fan of the 1939 original? “How are you not? It’s like saying I don’t like ice cream,” he says. “It’s an incredible movie, an incredible story, and one of the most famous films in the world.” With those credentials, the songwriter readily admits that he found the task intimidating. “It’s like someone saying, ‘Here, can you hold this briefcase with $100 million? Don’t lose it,’” says Gray, before laughing. “Actually, with this movie that would be a $250 million screw-up.”
Gray and his partners were given the script back in July (“us and 100 of our closest friend writers,” he laughs). They read the script and the accompanying instructions before starting. “It’s really hard — you don’t want to be too literal, and you don’t want to be too ambiguous.” They worked on an early draft and kept sending in revisions. In October, says Gray, “we knew we were writing a broad concept of the song, and that an artist would adapt it and really make it their own.”
When they heard that the artist on the project was Mariah Carey, Gray says they half expected “Ashton Kucher was going to jump out of closet.” Carey being the massive, global, very busy superstar that she is, getting everyone in the same room was nearly impossible, says Gray. Thanks to emails and mp3s and despite changing time zones, Carey and Gray’s team connected via Internet. “[We] brought [the song] to a place that we didn’t even anticipate it could go.” The single was released on Island Def Jam Records last month.
Interestingly, Gray’s first career choice was about nets, not notes. He played hockey in his native Toronto, as a player in the Ontario Hockey League. He had professional tryouts, and eventually played college hockey, sidelined by a chronic shoulder injury that forced him to retire early.
So he returned to his other early love, one that his mom helped nurture when she dropped Gray and his friends off at the recording studio when he was 15. “We had $100 between five of us, and we came out with this horrible demo tape,” says Gray, “but the seeds had been planted.”
Suddenly Gray was producing without even knowing what a producer was, organizing bands from other high schools and “bilking everyone out of their allowance.” His “addiction” meant he had to pinch hit, playing whatever instrument was needed, becoming a passable drummer, and playing keyboard, guitar and bass. “It evolved into what is now my vocation.”
Work in TV (Modern Family, Burn Notice, Degrassi: The Next Generation), film (Letters to Juliet, Hannah Montana, Bounce) and commercials followed. Credits include songs for Joss Stone, 98 Degrees, John Legend, The Spice Girls’ Emma Bunton, Jacksoul and Alex Parks among others.
The father of two kids — aged eight and five — now calls Los Angeles home and says that his career south of the border is “a blessing, a gift.” However, he also admits that he is Canadian through and through. “I bleed red.” Evidence can be found in the care packages of Tim Hortons coffee and Coffee Crisp chocolate bars Gray receives from friends up north.
Gray has won a Genie and has been nominated for 17 Juno awards during his career so far. But he does admit that an Oscar statuette would complete the set nicely. “I’ve found the perfect spot for it in the studio toilet,” Gray says. “So let’s put it out there into the universe… who knows?”
Oz: The Great and Powerful opens Friday at Dunbar, Park and Scotiabank.