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RetrOZpective: The Wiz (1978)

Let’s ease on down the road with the next instalment of our RetrOZpective. The Wiz is certainly amongst the coolest adaptations of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. A Broadway musical by Charlie Smalls and William F. BrownThe Wiz is a reimagining told through the lens of present-day African-American culture. With an all-black cast and a catchy soundtrack of R&B, soul, and pop numbers, The Wiz was popular with audiences and swept away the Tony Awards. Though only having seen the televised event The Wiz Live, I can safely say that the musical is a solid hit, uplifting and charming.

However, the 1978 film adaptation will be our focus in this review. It has its rare moments of creative flair and good performances, but the film was just a chore to sit through. I am a big fan of musical theatre and films, so I was disappointed by how this film was presented. Regardless, it is popular, becoming a cult classic as well as being an important film for better representation in Hollywood.

Berry Gordy, owner of Motown Records, produced the film in the hope to have Stephanie Mills, the stage show’s Dorothy, reprise her role. However, the one and only Diana Ross lobbied so intensely for the role, she turned to Universal producer Rob Cohen to help her get it. The intended director John Badham left the project, believing Ross was too old to play Dorothy, being thirty-three at the time. Instead, Sidney Lumet directed The Wiz, with Michael Schumacher as the screenwriter. Despite the ensemble of talent present, it seems to be what brings the film’s quality down.

In the musical, Dorothy remains as a young Kansas farmgirl who is uncomfortable with living with her folks, which becomes the crux of her journey throughout Oz. In the film Ross plays Dorothy as an introverted 24-year old Harlem teacher; afraid of going beyond her comfort zone. She is uncomfortable at her big family’s Thanksgiving dinner, whilst Aunt Em, played by Theresa Merritt, encourages her to get a high school job and move out of the house. Feels a little ironic that Dorothy is being told to move out when this franchise is well known for instilling the values of “no place like home”. Granted, it’s meant to encourage Dorothy to be brave and take a risk, but it feels odd.

Schumacher’s screenplay feels very detached from the musical and the story. He includes stereotypical jive slang and, even stranger, the self-improvement lectures of Werner Erhard. Apparently both Schumacher and Ross were enamoured with Erhard’s teachings, inserting many notions of positivity into the script. I appreciate films with positive messages, but not if they weigh down the whole experience. The script restructures the musical, removing several songs, or removing the emotional purpose of them. The opening number, “The Feeling We Once Had”, originally had Aunt Em singing to Dorothy to remind her of home and their relationship. In the film she is randomly singing it to her family of extras whilst Dorothy hovers around the edges of the scene looking for the nearest exit to escape.

Many have criticized Ross’ performance in the film, perhaps sharing the belief she was too old. She is at her best when she gets to sing her lungs out, but her acting career was all but over when The Wiz was panned. It’s a shame, considering how hard she lobbied for the role. Ross portrays Dorothy as nearly insufferable throughout, spending half the time shrieking and wailing hysterically even at times when it’s not needed. I get that Dorothy is uncomfortable to the point of terror, but to be in such a state for the whole film really makes her a difficult character to care for.

One runaway Toto and a blizzard in Harlem later, Dorothy is flung away to Oz. It is no longer a colourful land of fantasy, but a dystopian replica of New York City. The sets are huge but simple in design, blending together the real world and iconography of Oz rather well. The story follows the expected beats of the book, but with an urban twist. The Munchkins are all introduced as graffiti art until Dorothy knocks a sign down to crush Evermean, the Wicked Witch of the East, inheriting her silver shoes via the good witch Miss One, played by Thelma Carpenter. A very neurotic Dorothy is then directed to the Emerald City to see the titular Wiz; who turns out to be Richard Pryor, playing perhaps the most pitiful version of the humbug ever.

On the way, as you might expect, Dorothy meets three travelling companions. First, we have a 19-year old Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, made of garbage, who spouts quotes from literature. Jackson is amongst the best parts of the film, meeting Quincy Jones, who would produce his most popular albums. Nipsey Russell plays the Tin Man, now reimagined as a rusting Coney Isle animatronic, who talk-sings his two numbers, whilst occasionally breaking down when repeating certain syllables. Finally, Ted Ross reprises his role as the Cowardly Lion from the stage show, probably delivering the best performance in the film. Each of the three supporting performers work well to compliment Ross, though Jackson’s giant clown shoes prevent him from pulling off his famous dance moves, whilst Russell’s portrayal quickly grows irritating whenever he cries and breaks down.

The decision to change Oz into a gritty replica of New York was certainly a risky idea, blending the famous elements of a fictional location with a historical one. The Emerald City is the World Trade Centre, whilst the Wicked Witch of the West, Evellene – Broadway’s Mabel King – owns a sweatshops in the sewers for some reason. The choices for a modern setting lead to some weird set pieces. Our heroes walk into a subway; a creepy tramp unleashes weird, creepy pink jumping monsters, before the subway walls and bins start slowly move in to menace Dorothy.

Richard Pryor’s version of the Wiz is introduced as Herman Smith, an Atlantic City politician considered the worst in the country. He is so incapable as a character, that it is Dorothy who delivers the whole “it was with you all along” speech to her friends. Lena Horne, who happened to be Sidney Lumet’s mother-in-law at the time, arrives as Glinda to sing “Believe In Yourself”. Thanks to the insertions of Werner Erhard’s teachings into the script, it suddenly feels like a payoff to that, rather than Dorothy’s growth. Diana Ross then stands in front of a black background singing her heart out about home, whilst the faces of the entire cast flash by behind her. It is a bizarre ending for a bizarre movie.

Putting aside Ross’ performance and the enforced self-positivity messages, the film’s muddles lie with the production. Sidney Lumet was best known for directing moving dramas; feeling out of his comfort zone with The Wiz. The staging and cinematography is unnaturally static for a musical, especially when the cinematographer Oswald Morris was behind both Oliver and Fiddler On the Roof. Perhaps it was down to Lumet’s directions but most, if not all, of the musical numbers rely on static wide shots, low angles, high angles, or just focus on one person onscreen. The worst offender has to be “Ease On Down the Road”, arguably the musical’s best song; letting Ross and Jackson go to town with their talents. Too bad the whole scene is shot from both a crane, and filmed behind the actors as they dance up and down the road.

The Wiz was panned by critics upon release, ended Ross’ acting career, and blamed for the end of the blaxploitation revival in the early 1970s. Yet, it did receive four nominations at the Oscars. In later years, The Wiz found popularity on cable television, regarded nowadays as a cult classic. The film led to Michael Jackson’s later success as the King of Pop. Although my experience with the film itself was disappointing, if you look past its flaws, The Wiz can be a fun watch. It has great numbers and good acting. There is clearly love for The Wiz, remaining one of the most liveliest of Oz’s adaptations.

What are your thoughts on The Wiz? Has it aged well in forty years since its release? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.

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Mark Russell

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