The Wiz (1978)

Rating:

USA. 1978.

Crew

Director – Sidney Lumet, Screenplay – Joel Schumacher, Based on the Play by William F. Brown and the Novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Producer – Bob Cohen, Photography – Oswald Morris, Music/Lyrics – Charlie Small, Arrangements – Quincy Jones, Visual Effects – Albert Whitlock, Special Effects – Al Griswold, Makeup – Stan Winston, Production Design – Tony Walton, Choreography – Louis Johnson. Production Company – Motown

Cast

Diana Ross (Dorothy), Michael Jackson (The Scarecrow), Nipsy Russell (Tin Man), Ted Ross (Lion), Richard Pryor (The Wiz), Mabel King (Evilena), Theresa Merritt (Auntie Em), Thelma Carpenter (Miss One), Lena Horne (Glinda the Good)

Plot

Dorothy is a Black kindergarten teacher who has never been south of New York City’s 125th Street in her 24 years. One evening, Dorothy runs outside after her dog Toto, only for a freak twister to appear and snatch her and Toto up. The twister deposits them in downtown Harlem. Dorothy accidentally kills the Wicked Witch of the West as she lands. This serves to free the Munchkin people whom the Wicked Witch has turned into graffiti. The Munchkins tells Dorothy that the only way for her to return home is to seek the help of the mighty Wiz. And so Dorothy sets out on a journey to find The Wiz. Along the way she gathers a group of companions including a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a cowardly lion.

The Wiz is the film adaptation of a popular all-Black musical. The musical first premiered on Broadway in 1975 and enjoyed a popular run of 1672 performances over a period of four years. There is certainly an innovative idea at the heart of The Wiz – that of updating The Wizard of Oz (1939) and placing it in a modern Black funk-gospel idiom where Oz has been transformed into a fantasticized version of New York City. The film/musical makes some cute modern interpolations of the familiar aspects of The Wizard of Oz – The Munckins are held in thrall to the Wicked Witch of the East as graffiti on a wall; the Cowardly Lion is one of the stone lions outside the New York Public Library come to life; instead of the field of poppies, Dorothy and companions have dust blown in their faces by hookers; The Wicked Witch of the West runs a sweatshop and is done in by fire sprinklers, while the flying monkeys are a motorcycle gang; and Oz/The Wiz is now a failed politician who travelled in from New Jersey by hot-aired balloon and offers opinion on fashion from his Emerald Palace, located in Brooklyn.

The Wiz was mounted by the highly respected director Sidney Lumet. Sidney Lumet certainly has an impressive resume and has been responsible for a number of classic films such as 12 Angry Men (1957), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and the odd genre foray such as the stark nuclear drama Fail-Safe (1964), the Catholic boy’s boarding school psycho-thriller Child’s Play (1972) and the whodunnit parody Deathtrap (1982). On the script was a novice Joel Schumacher. At this point, Joel Schumacher had written a few scripts – Sparkle (1976), Car Wash (1976) – and shortly after The Wiz went on to make his debut as a director with The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981). Schumacher has since gone onto make genre films such as The Lost Boys (1990), Flatliners (1990), Falling Down (1993), Batman Forever (1995), Batman & Robin (1997), 8MM (1999), Phone Booth (2002), The Phantom of the Opera (2004), The Number 23 (2007) and Town Creek (2009), and is probably the worst director working in the American mainstream today.

Not having seen the musical that The Wiz is based on, one can only comment on the film itself. In almost all of the above-listed films, Sidney Lumet is a superb dramatist but it is clear here that the musical is just not his cup of tea. On screen, The Wiz moves with all the elegance of a limping dinosaur. The musical numbers fail to find any life and the dance set-ups are ponderous and dragging. (The sole exception is the catchy Munchkin number He’s the Wizard, belted out with a throaty Aretha Franklin gusto by Thelma Carpenter). The sets come on a quite mind-boggling scale. And the choreography, even if unimpressive, has some eye-catching scope – the budget for the film must have been fantastic. In the end though, The Wiz lacks soul. There is nothing up there amid the scale of the production. And the final message, which merely comes down to believing in one’s self, is trite.

A miscast Diana Ross (playing Dorothy at the age of 34) is neurotic and fails to bring Dorothy to life with any sparkle. The supporting cast overact by degrees – Richard Pryor and Ted Ross become progressively more outlandish as the film progresses, while the awfulness of Mabel King’s rafter-shrieking performance as the Wicked Witch of the West defies belief. At least Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow and Nipsy Russell as the Tin Woodsman offer some charm in their performances.

There was also The Wiz Live (2015), a tv movie remake based directly on the musical.


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