The Wiz (1978)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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'
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 vision: It was too dark and creepy. The cast: Michael Jackson was the only "okay" one. The rest were poorly cast. The acting: This one beat the original at being way over the top. Art Production: Too colorful with no creativity. Our Heroes: Michael Jackson's stuffed life vest. The lion looked like my high school mascot. The "Tin Man" should have been called the "Junk Man." Diana Ross look TOO old and haggard to even play a 30 year old teacher, let alone a 24 year old one. The choreography: the film's scale couldn't keep up with it in some scenes. And in others, it was way too underdone, slow and tedious to watch. The costumes: Most of the time, I didn't know if I was watching a Jim Henson production or something else. The bad guys: The wicked witch was horrendous, straight from the depths of anyone's worst nightmare. She died too easily and she was a complete idiot. The resolution: Rushed, unsatisfying, completely missing the point of the original book's message. Oz: It was ugly. The Wiz: A laughable cartoon. The subway scenes: Way too hellish. Columns breaking from ceilings with the Medusa hair thing going on, the orange creatures chasing our heroes, growing bigger on every step.
Wasn't this film made for children?
The best thing was the music but that's not enough for me to like this film at the least bit.
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.
I knew this movie was poorly regarded, and I expected to like it anyway (I'm certainly not sorry I've seen it) but the ratio of potential to realization is like 100:1. I'm really surprised it has so many defenders on this site. Let's discuss:
Yes, many people have said that Diana Ross is too old. What's not mentioned is that she looks TERRIBLE! She looks like a refugee! Also, she just has the wrong voice for this part. Stephanie Mills had a strange, nasal voice, but she was a BELTER, and you need a belter for these songs. Poor Diana and her thin voice just couldn't cut it, and she had no physical charm to fall back on. Oh dear.
I was really surprised how lame the musical renditions and sound quality were. I have surround sound, and I just couldn't believe how muffled and distant the sound was. And, in my opinion, ALL of the musical performances were misfires. You could see how many of the songs could have been good in a good performance, but those just weren't to be found here.
Many people single out Lena Horne's performance as fantastic, but to me, like the rest of the movie, she was BADLY misused. Lena Horne is a nuanced jazz singer, so to hear her try to go all low-down gospel was rather painful, especially with her impeccably-enunciated "Woo! Yeah!"'s. She also looks utterly ridiculous.
I didn't get much of a sense of the old Michael Jackson we all used to love between the layers of makeup and the lack of focus of the movie and scenes.
I love how Dorothy alternates between being worried that Toto is out of her sight for even a moment because he is so precious to her, and completely forgetting about his existence for long periods of time.
Also, apparently the scarecrow's owner shredded the works of the great philosophers (or at least his copy of Bartlett's Famous Quotations) to stuff his scarecrow with?
And WHAT is happening in the sequence where the subway comes to life and attacks our heroes? WHAT is that? Also, the cowardly lion doesn't get much of a character arc, does he? One scene he's going on about how he doesn't have any courage, the next he's ferociously defending Michael against the saber-toothed garbage cans.
Now think about that: saber-toothed garbage cans. Hmmm.
I understand that during this movie our quartet go through tableaux of the issues affecting blacks in the 70's, fine... so then what's with the emerald city scene where the Wiz dictates fashion to the people below? Am I to understand that one of the major cultural issues African-Americans faced in the 70's was the tyranny of imperious fashion designers?
I was surprised that of all the things they kept from the original Wizard of Oz film, they jettisoned the device that Dorothy is just dreaming about all the people she knows, and at the end there's no "And you were there, and you were there, and you were there" scene.
I was kind of stupefied by how HUGE some of the sets were. Many looked like actual NYC locations that they has just laid a yellow-brick floor on. I would love to know if they actually did that, or just built these enormous sets.
Well, that's it! This film is not a total waste of 2 hours, but it is... quite an oddity.
--- Check out my website devoted to bad and cheesy movies at: www.cinemademerde.com
The film is terrible. Lumet can be a great director, and a terrible director and here he is firmly planted in the latter category. The casting, for the most part, is hideous. Everything that was simple and fun on stage has been changed for the film, from its NY setting (a terrible idea, despite Tony Walton's occasionally amusing sets), and it's all too damn big with no charm. Changing the play's Dorothy to Diana Ross as an ADULT schoolteacher is the worst transgression - are we supposed to give a hoot about her? Please.
It really is one of the worst adaptations of a Broadway musical ever. As to the people who "love" it I say only that there is no movie ever made, no matter how bad, that isn't thought a masterpiece here at the IMDb.
With having nothing good to say about The Wiz, I really don't quite know where to start tearing into it. To say that I hated this movie, in its entirety, would truly be an understatement.
From its forgettable songs, to its hammy performances, to its overlong dance numbers, to its grubby setting - The Wiz was, on all counts, a total embarrassment of lousy storytelling at its absolute nadir.
This film ultimately horks a slimy booger of contempt directly into the face of the original Wizard Of Oz from 1939 (as it also does at the book which was written by Frank Baum).
What inevitably wrecked The Wiz completely was, of course, the casting of Diana Ross as the contemptible Dorothy character. If ever there was a performance worthy of a "Razzie", Ross's Dorothy would, undoubtedly, be it.
You know, with the way I'm feeling right now, I'm absolutely sick of thinking about this absolutely crappy excuse for a movie-musical and, with that, I'm now gonna end my review by saying - Film-maker Sidney Lumet really should have been black-listed for his incompetent direction of this ultimate fiasco film.
Starting with the good things, first and foremost Michael Jackson. He is surprisingly good as the Scarecrow, with just about the right amount of energy and innocence for the role. His vocal rendition of You Can Win was thoroughly enjoyable especially. Nipsy Russell and Ted Ross also do nice work as The Tin Man and Lion, and Lena Horne(R.I.P) is a lovely Glinda. Mabel King does well with what she has as Evillene, which admittedly isn't much, though I felt she died too easily. I will say I thoroughly enjoyed the songs, Ease On Down the Road is by far the catchiest and the most memorable.
However, I hated Diana Ross's Dorothy. I love Diana Ross, but she was not right for Dorothy at all, she is too old in my personal opinion that is, she has been in much better voice before as well and she fails to capture the cherubic innocence of Judy Garland coming off as haggard and whiny. Even worse was Richard Pryor's Wiz, I found him far too loud and cocky, it was as if Pryor hadn't realised he was playing "the wonderful yet mysterious Wizard of Oz", because if anything it felt like another one of his comedy skits. The story is good on the whole if somewhat rickety and flow-less in places, but then there are some pointless scenes; I am especially talking about the subway scenes, those scenes were completely unnecessary.
I had mixed feelings on the sets. Some are beautiful and expensive-looking but others especially the one in You Can Win looked like sets from Monty Python. Some costumes are nice, such as Lion's and Glinda's but the Winkies's are less successful. The dialogue is occasionally amusing, but it is also very inane as well, Sidney Lumet's direction is very heavy-handed here and the choreography is messy particularly in the Emerald City Ballet sequence and a Brand New Day. The camera work and lighting ranges from adequate to appalling with the lighting in The Munckin Scene too dim and the camera work very static in more than one place throughout the course of the movie. The movie is filmed sometimes at such a distance, you have difficulty empathising with any of the characters and their situations. The pacing is often off as well, as the film progresses the pacing becomes increasingly elephantine and pedestrian. And talk about an abrupt ending, completely unsatisfying and rushed. When it ended, I was like "that's it?"
Overall, had its good points, but The Wiz could have been much better with more focused direction, choreography, camera work etc. 4/10 Bethany Cox
One of the main problems of the film (everyone's said it before and I'll say it again), is the casting of Ross as Dorothy. While I found her singing numbers to be wonderful and full of emotion, Diana just plays the role too dark and brooding. She cries so much that she winds up looking like a neurotic mental case on the verge of suicide. (Reviewer Leonard Maltin said she "weeps and whines" her way through this.) And no makeup job in the world could make the mature Ross look like a young, innoncent girl (even though, in the film, she's supposed to be a 24-yr old teacher). Diana is just a depressing, unbelievable Dorothy, despite what a wonderful singer she is.
Another problem is the look and feel of the film. For a movie that was rated G and based on the family fare of The Wizard of Oz, it sure wasn't that childlike. An overall depressing tone, low lighting, and freaky costumes and set design drag this film down. It freaked me out when I saw it as a kid, and now seeing it again as an adult, I now understand why. Don't get me wrong, I think the sets are outstanding, but kids movies should not look like a horror flick.
(And speaking of horror flicks, one scene even looks like one as attacking trash cans with teeth recall "Jaws.")
There are many positives of this film, however. The excellent score that was perfected in the Broadway run is enhanced by soaring arrangements by Quincy Jones. (A guilty pleasure is the funky disco Emerald City numbers.) Also, every member of the supporting cast is outstanding and well-cast.
But overall, the screenplay is just too weird for any adult, much less kid, to enjoy. At 133 minutes, it seems to drag on forever and ever. The Wiz is not a total failure, and everyone involved should have felt proud to be a part. But without the entertaining musical/dance numbers and a few comic-relief moments (delivered by the Scarecrow, Tin Man & Lion), The Wiz would just be a bad memory of Diana Ross' career. Anyone's who's really interested in the magic and promise of The Wiz should hope that the Broadway play is revived in its original glory (as it was sometime in the 1990s).
Forget the fact that the source material just isn't very good. (There's a reason "Ease on Down the Road" is played over and over again...it's the only decent song in the whole thing.) Forget the fact that Joel Schumacher, who years later decided the Batsuit needed nipples, wrote (or rather scrawled) an awful script. Forget the fact that the costumes look like they were found in a Dumpster outside Party Fair. All of these things could easily have been overlooked if only the direction hadn't been so ham-handed. Watching the musical numbers, you just want to reach into the screen, grab Lumet, and force him to move his camera a bit. Each number is shot in the most static fashion, with barely a zoom, a pan, or a dolly. It's like watching a filmed stage production with real NYC locations brought into the theater. I understand this was before the era of MTV, and I'm not asking for Michael Bay-type direction, but where Lumet's static direction worked with such dialogue-heavy dramas as Network and Dog Day (and later Prince of the City), the exact opposite approach was needed here.
I don't want to sound like I'm knocking Lumet for being a bad director. Nothing could be further from the truth. But some directors, even great ones, are not meant to make certain movies. I believe he took the job for the paycheck and while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, you can't feel any passion for the project coming through. I just wonder what would have happened if a filmmaker with a real passion for the job had taken on "The Wiz".
Worst casting mistake: DIANA ROSS as Dorothy, a one-note impersonation of a frightened child (although she's supposed to be a young adult schoolteacher). It's hard to believe she won an Academy Award nomination for LADY SINGS THE BLUES, so bad is she in voice and manner to suggest the Dorothy image made famous in the Frank L. Baum original.
The others are so fully disguised as to be almost unrecognizable--yes, even MICHAEL JACKSON as The Scarecrow completely misses the mark. Whatever laughs are attempted, they barely conjure up a chuckle.
The big production numbers are a complete mess, either too intricately staged or filmed at such a distance ("Ease On Down The Road") that there's no intimacy with the characters.
Lumet was obviously the wrong director for this kind of material. And of course he had obstacles thrown in his way by the miscasting of all the major characters.
A friend of mine used to use the phrase "Looks like two-cents worth of God Help Us!" It's an apt description of this God-Awful mess of a movie.
Some people have remarked Diana Ross was too old to play Dorothy, OK, well, so was Judy Garland. True. There's really nothing wrong with this musical--The songs are excellent, performed by some great talents. The production design is spectacular (maybe a little dated, but still something to look at). The sets are a little nightmarish looking, true, but I liked that. I reminded me of "Return of Oz", a favorite of mine too. The real problem with this movie is the damn direction and cinematography.
What were they thinking? The Munchkin scene is not only lit horribly (too dark!), but all the musical numbers seem like they're just comprised of master shots. Very few close ups of dancers, other singers, and even main characters. During the "Ease on Down the Road" number Lumet has us staring at Diana Ross and Michael Jackson's back from far away in the distance for two minutes. It felt like I was watching this movie from the cheap seats. Thus, I always felt distanced from the characters and situations, and just couldn't get into the movie.
I read Sidney Lumet's book "Making Movies" and I remember him writing in detail about shooting to get proper coverage. What happened here?
Miss Ross is, yes, all wrong for the role. But even the moments when she might be able to wow us vocally are undercut by odd directorial choices. (Case in point: wouldn't "Ease On Down the Road" have been a much zippier number had it not been shot FROM THE BACK? I recently saw this movie with an audience, and you could feel the anticipation as the song began. By the end of the number, all the energy had been drained from the room.) Michael Jackson does a decent job with "You Can't Win," and it's nice to see his original face, but he's rather mewly throughout, and that gets annoying fast. And alas, Richard Pryor didn't seem to have any G-rated humor up his sleeve, so he offers little to the movie outside of stunt casting. (They could have gotten Bill Cosby and it would have made little difference.)
So while THE WIZ isn't a complete disaster, there's a lot to slog through to get to the good stuff. And Oz-as-New-York seems like a rather seedy place to visit. But then it's the pre-Giuliani Oz, after all.
Instead of a young girl Dorothy (Diana Ross) is a 24 year old woman, shy, frightened with the world and during a storm she ends up in the City of Oz along with her dog Toto. The rest if you know the story is the same: she mets a Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) without a brain; a tin man (Nipsey Russell) without a heart; and the Coward Lion (Ted Ross) who wants courage. All Dorothy wants is to return home and to do that she must find the Wizard of Oz (Richard Pryor) the only one who could possibly makes her wish come true. But there are dangerous in the yellow brick road too! Moving objects, the Old Witch of the West who wants to revenge the death of her sister killed accidentally by Dorothy.
Now what makes this film good to see? "The Wiz" is a musical that presents to the audience new songs to an classic story, typical sounds of the 1970's, a few good musical numbers and two great and unforgettable moments, the two first songs sang ed by Michael Jackson. And Michael's performance is fantastic. Not only singing but here you can see he's a method actor, playing the down and out Scarecrow. The Art direction and the costumes are incredibly great (nominated for Oscar) but Oz instead of being Oz is appears to be like a bizarre and altered New York City where there are five Chrysler's building and the World Trade Center is where the Wizard of Oz lives.
My concerns about this movie: It's very boring and depressing. 90% of the songs presented here moves in some darker issues such as fear, absence of things, "I want to return home" that kind of thing. Okay kids might not noticed that (when I watched this film as a kid it was one of my favorites) but the more experienced viewer gets bored easily by watching Diana Ross crying in almost every song she sangs. She was totally miscast and this movie end up her movie career (she only made two TV movies after that). Also the fact that for a musical it runs too long, tried to be funny and end up being over dramatic. Bottom of line: it didn't needed to be made and even Ray Bolger (the original Scarecrow) said this: "The Wiz" is overblown and will never have the universal appeal the original movie obtained." Right!
Lesson that Dorothy of the 1939 movie learned: "There's no place like home". Meaning = things might be bad in home but it's better to be there than be in another place else. Lesson learned by Dorothy in this movie: "Be brave, don't be too shy and go teach in a school for teen students where you're gonna get a better paycheck". If you pay attention in the beginning when Dorothy's mom says something like that and when Dorothy returns home you're gonna have that idea as the story's moral.
Sorry Mr. Lumet but you'll be better remembered by masterpieces like "Network", "12 Angry Men" and "Dog Day Afternoon". But it wasn't your fault. Perhaps the one who needs to be blamed of its failure is the writer Joel Schumacher. What he was thinking in writing a low and sad movie for kids? We're never wanna know! 3/10