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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
THE WIZ is a bad movie. It is a very bad movie. It is an extremely very
To watch it is to be infuriated by just how much potential it has and how far it falls from even vaguely achieving success. A black, urban version of "The Wizard of Oz" is an intriguing idea. The musical score is okay and at least three of the songs are better than average. The budget was obviously substantial and a lot of effort was put into transforming New York City into Munchkinland, the Emerald City and points in between. But rather than being in awe of the spectacle, one is more likely to stare in disbelief and ask "What were they thinking?"
Sidney Lumet, a fine director noted for making small, dark and often depressing dramas (12 ANGRY MEN, FAIL-SAFE, THE PAWNBROKER, etc.), seems ill-prepared to make a big budget musical based on a series of children's books -- and, unfortunately, he proves it. I don't think he makes a single intelligent directorial decision in this entire film: the lighting is gloomy, camera placement consistently ineffective and the editing clumsy. His choice of soft, grainy imagery over crisp, clear pictures makes the atmosphere oppressive. The set design, art direction and costuming, while impressive, still look numbingly cheap and tawdry. Scenes filmed on location at New York landmarks look like they take place on cramped soundstages. The film is just plain ugly to watch.
Worse, Lumet seems to have directed the actors to perform in a soap opera style that is embarrassingly overwrought: the prevailing mood is of whining self-pity. Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell and Ted Ross get in a few good moments as The Scarecrow, The Tin Woodsman and The Cowardly Lion, but there is not a single honest moment to be found in the performance by Diana Ross. To accommodate Ross, six-year-old Dorothy from the book (played as 13 by 16-year-old Judy Garland in THE WIZARD OF OZ), now is a 24-year-old Harlem kindergarten teacher. At 34-years-old, Ross looks more like she is pushing 50, yet displays the emotional maturity of a three-year-old.
Ross' miscasting is legendary, but her inappropriateness for the role pales in comparison to her actual performance. In rewriting the story for Ross, Joel Schumacher's screenplay changes Dorothy from being a winsome, wide-eyed child to an emotionally unstable adult. In Ross' dubious hands the character seems both mentally and emotionally retarded, yet she somehow manages to avoid making the character in any way sympathetic. Strident, always on the verge of hysterics, it is, simply put, one of the all time worst screen performances.
Richard Pryor fares little better. Instead of the lovable charlatan played by Frank Morgan in the 1939 version of the story, the Wizard is now a cowering little fraud, devoid of wit or charm. Why hire Pryor, known for his bravado and cocky attitude, then make him play against type? The filmmakers decided that this Wizard did not just have to be exposed as an illusion, but had to be humiliated and degraded as well. The scenes where Dorothy confronts and belittles The Wiz illustrate the mean-spirited cruelty that permeates the entire film.
The most curious aspect of THE WIZ is trying to decipher just who it was intended for. Obviously, the material was meant to appeal to children, thus it's strangely inappropriate "G" rating; yet the mystical, magical land of good and evil from earlier versions is transformed into a foreboding world of terror and despair. Oz seems to be an extended slum, populated by the homeless, vandals, hookers, bookies, druggies, various street people and gangs; while the Emerald City is a superficial place for shallow, pretentious phonies. While the tone of the film is juvenile -- almost infantile -- it all takes place in a seedy adult world that is almost prurient.
THE WIZ doesn't just avoid childlike innocence, it seems to hold it in contempt. Garland's Oz was basically a beautiful place where evil could be conquered with intellect, compassion, courage and the security of family and friends. The Oz that Ross treks through is basically an evil place; the message she learns is that the world stinks, so stop your whining and get used to it. The "there's no place like home" moral remains intact, but that has little meaning if the alternative -- Oz -- is seen as corrupt and evil.
In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy's Oz is a dream world version of her own life; the Witch, the Wizard and her traveling companions all have human counterparts. This makes the 1939 film a personal story. In THE WIZ, there is no apparent correlation between Oz and Dorothy's seemingly isolated home life, the people of Oz and Dorothy's family have no counterparts. Garland's Dorothy escapes to Oz, but realizes the best part of Oz is already part of her. Ross' Dorothy fears Oz and ultimately escapes from it. The inner dream world of Oz becomes an alien world of media-generated stereotypes. THE WIZARD OF OZ is a fantasy; THE WIZ is a horror story.
Obviously reworking the basic story to accommodate an all-black cast wasn't done just to utilize a different style of music. As such, the film becomes a showcase for a panorama of African-American stereotypes, many of them negative. But rather than debunking racist clichés, the film embraces them. Sleep inducing poppy fields are replaced with opium dens, witches become sweatshop slave drivers, flying monkeys are gang members, Munchkins are graffiti vandals and so on and so forth. As adult satire, such imagery is understandable, if lame, but the film forgets this is still a story specifically aimed at children. Just as the film was rewritten from the play to accommodate the adult Ross, the material is altered from L. Frank Baum's books to make it adult, but not mature. It seems to be the film's conviction that to tell the story from a black perspective it must embrace a grim urban reality, basically saying that childlike innocence cannot exist because urban living, especially for a black audience, has destroyed such a concept. A sad commentary for a children's fantasy and an even sadder assumption about African-American life.
The irony of THE WIZ is that it is ill-conceived, cheaply melodramatic and relies on trite stereotypes; in other words, it has no brain, no heart and no courage. And ultimately it found no home, being a box office flop. And what could have been a breakthrough landmark in cinema ends up being a sad relic of political incorrectness.
Okay...I never knew that other people did not love The Wiz until last
year, 2004. I first saw this movie in the theater when it was released
as a little girl. My mother, sister and I felt like we had been drawn
into an urban fairy tale that we could relate to. As African-Americans,
this was the first time we had witnessed a fantastical creation that
had characters and images that we could relate too.
The singing, costumes, backdrop of New York city and choreography were magical. In fact, TV One just aired an all day marathon of The Wix on Thanksgiving and we watched the loop the entire day.
The Wiz provides the viewer with a sneak peek into the lives of Dorothy, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Lion--all with some "SOUL." The cast of lesser characters are even more of a jewel...the crows--well, most of us can relate to the "crabs in a barrel" attitude that has plagues the inner city; Miss One--well she was a glitter bedecked "numbers runner"; the citizens of Emerald City remind me of the urban fashionista crowd...and the dance scene reflect the attitude of the bourgeoisie that you can find in any community of color in the United States; the Poppies--what a hilarious nod to the fact that often times, you don't even see women of color in movies unless they are playing the role of prostitute or drug addict; and the workers in Evilene's Sweat Shop...well, they are like so many of us who suddenly discover that there is someone beautiful waiting to come out of us...we just have to be free enough to be comfortable in our own skin.
OK. You get the picture...I love this movie. And so many others that I know do too. I am thankful that I can now share The Wiz with my own children.
This movie is nothing short of wonderful.
It is not the best movie ever made. It is not technically perfect or flawlessly acted. There are things wrong with it, some more egregious than other movies, some less.
But here's the thing: The Wiz has taken an old, beloved classic of literature and rewritten it just enough to make it completely new. I was as absorbed...if not moreso...with these new characters, reborn into another world, so familiar and yet so unknown, as I was taken in by the original Judy Garland film.
Suspension of disbelief is a necessary ingredient for all storytelling, and the more fantastic the more imagination one requires to enjoy it. Diana Ross too old? So what? I thought she was marvelous, and I thought she perfectly portrayed Dorothy in this alternate universe. In fact, I thought all the actors were terrific.
The story of the Wizard Of Oz has been in my top five favourite stories of all time for as long as I have been alive. I include Diana Ross' The Wiz right up there in an unbreakable tie with Judy Garland's Wizard Of Oz. They are both charming and well told versions of a brilliant literary classic, and they both deserve their due at the top of the food chain as far as fantastic storytelling goes.
And I haven't even touched the stunning aspect that an all Black cast chose not only to make this film, but actually rewrite it enough to show the point of view of the lives of the folks who lived in the ghettos and inner cities.
Even today, Black actors must struggle to receive equal treatment in film. Back when this movie was released, accomplishing this film was nothing short of a mind-boggling achievement, and one to be lauded.
I suspect a lot of the bad reputation this film has gotten over the years, especially at the beginning, was because the inherent racism and sexism in the industry was offended that the folks who made this film had the temerity to do so with an all-Black cast. It's happened before, and I'm afraid it will continue to happen until we grow enough intelligence to finally put discrimination behind us at last, and move beyond into a brighter future.
This movie will remain one of my favourite films. I couldn't recommend it any more highly. If you are a child at heart, if you love good stories made new, if you live in the imagination, this film is for you.
Just beware of that subway scene. If your kids are young and/or easily frightened, preview the movie before you watch it with them. It still creeps me out when I see it, and I know a lot of people who still get nightmares from it. But it's one of the best scenes in the film, and a testament to how creative the folks who put the film together were.
Normally, I feel that it is a travesty to remake an older, classic film (sequels excepted). Profits aside, what is the motive? What is there to add? "The Wiz," however, is one of the few exceptions to my belief. Whereas "The Wizard of Oz" is more of a child's film, the intended audience for "The Wiz" is a few steps above that. Like its predecessor, "The Wiz" is both visually stunning and musically engaging. It compliments the seriousness of its themes and situations--both of which it has in more abundance than its predecessor--with a copious amount of humor. Seldom have I witnessed a more creative work of adaptation than that which is presented by "The Wiz," which is, of course, adapted from L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." A few others that spring to mind are "Logan's Run" and "The War of the Worlds." I mention these not because they were simply a good translation of book to film, but because they maintained the book's overall story (plot, theme, characters, etc.) while retailoring the environment and/or situation. "The Wiz" focuses on the "black situation." It redresses all of the elements from its source material to meet the needs of its revamped, modern, social subject matter. From the Scarecrow, who represents a pitiable, underachieving product of his environment; to the poppies, which represent drug addiction; to the denizens of Oz, who are ready to follow the latest trend just to be "in;" the story presents its audience with a generalized glimpse at the breakdown of "black" culture and society. Though "The Wiz" does not convey the same childlike wonder, magic, and fantasy that both the original film and the novel do, it translates those elements into more of an industrialized, mechanical, inner city playground. Unfortunately, albeit appropriately, the Oz we witness is through an older Dorothy's eyes. Interestingly, due to her advanced age, the circumstances that befall her must be harsher in order to invoke the necessary change of heart. Unlike the setting in "The Wizard of Oz," which exists in our dreams, "somewhere over the rainbow," the setting in "The Wiz" occupies our nightmares. The contrast between Judy Garland's Oz and her native Kansas is many times greater than that between Diana Ross' Oz and her native New York. The incentive to return home is greater for Diana--even though the colorful lure of a fantasy land is not present--since her Oz may be merely a preview of things to come (back home), if she does not start to make a difference. One of the few things for which I did not care was all-too-recognizable, yet modified New York as Oz. Though the entire film's art direction was brilliant, I found New York to be too distracting and too contemporary to be an adequate Oz. Another subject of distaste for me was the "end of slavery" segment after Evillene's liquidation. The song and dance were nice and full of energy, but the symbolism was too literal and seemed out of place with regards to the rest of the film. I could have also enjoyed a bit more denouement and perhaps even an epilogue about Dorothy's reunion with her family. Three interesting notes: 1) The landscape of Oz in "The Wiz" actually does change after Dorothy intervenes to make a difference; this does not happen in "The Wizard of Oz." 2) While Judy's visit to Oz seems to be concussion-induced, Diana actually appears to visit that fabled land, which is closer to the book. 3) "The Wiz" contains all four witches presented in the book; "The Wizard of Oz" only contains three. Though it seems rather dated today, "The Wiz" is still a fun movie to view, and it contains a number of known (Motown) celebrities.
...And favorites don't always have rhyme or reason. I can just say that this movie always struck a chord with me. I know that it is dark. I agree that Diana Ross's acting is overwrought with some unknown neurosis. But the music is soulful and the vocal performances make me cry every time. The urban setting (in contrast to the farm that never "clicked" with me) is almost comforting, though not in the parking garage. I agree with the more intellectual reviewers that Lumet's direction could have been better. I'm just a sucker for the gospel-style singing in "the feeling that we have", "believe", and "brand new day". I find this movie much more of an emotional release than the Wizard of Oz.
Watching The Wiz on cable, I'm reminded how, by the over-powering
influence of one person, such a wondrous diamond was transformed into a
Diana Ross proves to be the wickedest witch in The Wiz by forcing her way into the lead role in what could have been a masterful classic of the ages, where Stephanie Mills could have brought to the silver screen the magical and exuberant star-power she achieved in her Broadway debut.
Without question, Ms. Ross's uncontrollable ego so contaminated the entire production which, aside from the outstanding art direction, choreography, and music, went far beyond the ability of any director to regain the life-giving power of such a legionary story Stephanie Mills could have inspired.
Ironically, it was fate that stepped in and rescued The Wizard of Oz from Shirley Temple, handing the key role to Judy Garland. (Don't get me wrong, we all loved dear Shirley, just not in this.). Whereas, Ms. Ross' intervention chopped fate to shreds, poured gasoline on the pile, and burned it by raging fire into oblivion. Alas, what might have been...
It's a bit confounding as to why this legendary 1978 fiasco would
warrant a 30th Anniversary Edition DVD, even though in hindsight, this
elaborately conceived film is not quite as bad as I recall. That's not
to say it's a neglected masterpiece. Not by a long shot. Directed by
the estimable Sidney Lumet ("Long Day's Journey Into Night", "Network",
last year's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"), the epic-length film
is a regrettable misfire on several counts with its chief liability
being a rickety story structure due to an early-career foible of a
screenplay by current schlock-master Joel Schumacher ("Batman Forever",
"The Phantom of the Opera"). The 1975 Broadway musical version was a
zesty, all-black update of Frank Baum's original story that became a
long-running hit. Schumacher eschewed the book of the stage version in
order to customize the role of Dorothy, written as a pre-pubescent
Kansas farm girl, for a then 34-year old Diana Ross, still riding high
off "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Mahogany". Consequently, in the film
version, Dorothy has inexplicably become a 24-year old Harlem
schoolteacher with a severe case of social anxiety disorder.
Because the original 1939 film version of "The Wizard of Oz" is so familiar, there is virtually no sense of surprise in the way of plot. The challenge becomes watching a dowdy, skeletal-looking Ross react to her surreal surroundings in such an excessively naïve manner as to make Dorothy appear in need of a special education program. That leaves her three road companions to pick up the slack, and for the most part, they do. One can now feel melancholic over Michael Jackson's youthfully energetic turn as the Scarecrow since it is the only time his abundant talents have been captured on the big screen. He does his trademark spins and jumps in an exuberant duet with Ross on the show's most famous number, "Ease on Down the Road", probably the film's best moment. Comedian Nipsey Russell makes a likeably philosophical Tin Man, but it's Ted Ross who truly shines as Fleetwood the Lion in a performance that compares favorably to Bert Lahr's cowardly original. A rather hyper Richard Pryor makes a barely-there appearance in the title role. The women fare even less well. Theresa Merritt has just a few scenes upfront as kindly Aunt Emma, Mabel King does her blustery best to make an impression as Evillene the Wicked Witch in just a couple of scenes, and the legendary Lena Horne is simply wasted as Glinda the Good in static repose as she belts out her one number, "If You Believe in Yourself".
The film picks up considerable energy during the production number set to Luther Vandross' "Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day", but Lumet just doesn't know when to stop it. Like Martin Scorsese (1977's "New York, New York") and John Huston (1982's "Annie"), Lumet is a director out of his depth within the necessary fleetness of the musical genre, and the film's pacing lags over its excessive running time of 133 minutes. The one element that remains impressive over the years is Tony Walton's creative costumes and elaborate production design turning New York City into a surreal series of carnival rides. Most ironically, the World Trade Center is made over into Emerald City and the Twin Towers plaza becomes the setting for an Earth, Wind & Fire-style disco ensemble. For what is marketed as a special edition package, the 2008 DVD is surprisingly bereft of meaningful extras a brief making-of featurette made at the time of production, the original theatrical trailer and a CD with eight of the movie's songs. The movie is a misbegotten mess with just a few forgotten jewels.
A good artist knows the ins and outs of his genre and creates works
that clearly belong with others of the same type. A great artist knows
more than one genre, crosses their boundaries and unites things that
aren't supposed to belong together, creating a new genre of his own. In
this film, director Sidney Lumet - who has proved himself as a good
director with his mastery of gritty realism - tries to cross those
boundaries and unite his gritty style with the film musical. He pours
his ingredients into the wicked witch's cauldron, mixes them
together... and sadly creates a hotpot of sloppy seconds.
The first point of contention has to be the grossly mis-cast Diana Ross as Dorothy. I have read in various places that she gained the part from playing personal politics and schmoozing with the honchos at Universal. As this game has no honour whatsoever, I see no reason to be diplomatic when talking about how damn awful she was at this part. Not only was she too old to be a convincing Dorothy, but she just could not act to save herself. Her squealing ham of a performance does nothing for movie, and when the movie cuts to one of her "emotional" close-ups, you can just picture the few seconds beforehand when Lumet must have said, "OK, Diana, it's time to do your scared/sad/excited/confused face... ACTION!", and the camera proceeds to film a few seconds of overacting that could fit into a song about feelings by Barney the dinosaur. Granted, her singing in the movie is mature and soulful, but this only makes the acting seem even more awkward and out-of-place in comparison.
Combine this with Lumet's tendency to stage scenes with a master shot with so few cutaways, close-ups or focus on the finer details of choreography or design. Then notice a lack of flow from once scene to another, and everything seems so out of place that by the time the characters arrive at the Emerald City, it's VERY hard to be interested in the movie. The later highlights such as Mabel King's performance as Evillene and Lena Horne's performance as Glinda fade into the obscurity that the film has inflicted upon itself.
Michael Jackson and Nipsey Russell give credible performances as the Scarecrow and Tin Man. It's equally heartening to see Jackson in the days before he became a living tabloid headline/punchline and disturbing to think that while he shines in this role, his performance as a stumbling, confused character on a quest to find himself became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Like or hate the music, but the material and the performances could have been much better served by a script that didn't scream out its point at every opportunity and direction that occasionally inter-cut some of the finer details with the 'big picture'
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Part of my rancor for this movie is that I saw the original play with Stephanie Mills. For the most part, the play was a truer adaptation to the original. I was thrilled when I heard the movie was being made...that is until I saw Diana Ross was playing Dorothy. I just could not wrap my mind around a 40 year old Dorothy and still can't. What really makes me sad is that the young children that see this think it is wonderful. I remember falling out laughing when they did a close up of "Dorothy's" feet in the magic slippers. Veins and tendons galore. They looked like turkey feet. Well, like a trip to Mecca, I plan to take my daughter to see the Broadway summer revival, so she will not grow up in the ignorance that Diana Ross is Dorothy. This film was wrong on so many levels, I would really be suspicious of a 40 year old woman living like a 12 year old. Ewwwwwwww just creepy all the way around. It made me think that instead of a tornado, Dorothy had been to the local crack house and when she finally came down, she ran "home". I cringe every time she squealed "Toto", and at the same time looking like she was weaned on a pickle. Just sad.....
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What one must understand is ... what a wonderful play "The Wiz" was on
Broadway. At the time, a tiny little teen with a LARGE voice named
Stephanie Mills took this play by the hand and made it spectacular. You
had to have seen it in New York back then -- and I did -- when I was a
Then came this movie. A stage to screen adaptation of the play that has a few good moments (all by supporting cast) but was brought down by the casting of Diana Ross as Dorothy. While this may make all Diana Ross "fans" angry - understand one key thing: Miss Ross was too old to play this Dorothy. There were plenty of those at the time who felt that way -- and when I finally saw this movie, I have to 100% agree.
I do remember the 'gossip mill' of this this like it was yesterday:
Stephanie Mills, the original Dorothy from the stage, was considered to do the screen version and Miss Ross was tapped to play the Good Witch at the end (the part Lena Horne finally did.) If this casting took off, the film would have been a nice bow to the stage version and the Dorothy 'part' would have been the young teen she was meant to be. Even if Miss Mills was found not to be "box office" enough (shrugg!!!), there were plenty of teens at that time to handle the part - and me it IS important to have Dorothy in The Wiz portrayed as such a young, inexperienced, wide eyed teen in the ghetto learning these things.
But..and this is according to the gossip mills of that time...Miss Ross wanted the part of DOROTHY so bad and she pulled her weight and clout...said she could "get" Michael Jackson (whom at that time was a hot teen singer himself!) to whom they were VERY interested in casting. The rumor was Miss Ross said in essence, no Dorothy for her, no Michael for you. And that would leave the executives, who thought Michael would be a box office draw, in a quandary. So here we have, what we have.
Whether this is true or not is for you to decide. But as I watch this, there has to be a bit of truth for it does pain me to see Miss Ross as the young ghetto Dorothy. Every time there's a close up, interaction of the part to the adults or dance number, you can tell. Be honest. We're not talking about a Shirley Temple vs. a Judy Garland age thing that actually worked, it was a baby New Year vs. Methuselah on screen thing. Fan of Miss Ross or not - and I am a fan - just not for this. This was/should have been Stephanie's debut movie role, and it would have been nice.
And not just to zero in on Miss Ross' casting, there could have been a few other changes as well that would have made this kinda fun as well...such as Nipsy Russell's Tim Man was good, but putting Richard Pryor there would have been a riot -- and letting Nipsy be...The Wiz instead. As I've said, there are other roles that were wonderful here - (Oh, Evilene!!!) and Lena Horne as the Good Witch are a delight to see nevertheless.
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