The Wiz (1978)
User ReviewsAdd a Review
Admittedly, there are good moments; Jackson as the Scarecrow and Nipsey Russell as the Tinman are both quite funny, the songs are, all in all, good, and the sets, garish as they are, have an odd fascination.
Diana Ross is a terrible Dorothy. Ted Ross is a cipher of a Lion. Richard Pryor is utterly wasted as the Wiz, a loser politician who does nothing of note. The idea that Dorothy has never gone south of 125th is so dumb as to seem parodic. The idea that Toto could, in a flash, run outside into a freak snowstorm is silly. The ending resolves nothing that I can see. The film runs 134 minutes*, pretty long for a family film.
This is a sad sight, to put it plainly.
*No intermission, but there is a good break point about 90 minutes in. 44 minutes less misery.
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.
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.
The musical numbers are too long and way, way over-art-directed, and the choreography is completely pedestrian. The only person who shines in the whole film is the young Michael Jackson, looking cute and normal in his pre-op incarnation. Other than this, the film is a definite misfire, which is unfortunate because the score is good and, of course, the story is very durable.
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...
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.
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.