The Wiz (1978)

From the very beginning, I knew this was either going to be a complete train wreck or something really special. On a conceptual level alone the idea of an urban retelling of the Wizard of Oz with an entirely black cast in the late 70s had plenty of merit and potential in it. When you then also added names like Sidney Lumet, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross and Richard Pryor into the mix, well, that just made the movie sound absolutely phenomenal. How could it not be good? Unfortunately the ugly truth is that the movie is in fact a complete disaster. Which would explain why it was a complete box office bomb at the time of its release.

Making a movie adaptation of a popular Broadway musical is always challenging process because there’s always that risk that it doesn’t come together as well in film that it does when it’s performed live on stage. When you’re simultaneously also remaking the Wizard of Oz, one of the perhaps most beloved kid’s movie in America, you really had your work cut out for you, and it’s pretty clear that juggling those two elements didn’t go as smoothly as you would have liked. While the Wiz does manage to differentiate itself perfectly from the 1939 version and simply exists as its own thing entirely, the movie utterly fails at being an entertaining musical. It’s a valiant attempt, but fails to balance the musical elements with the story. I don’t really mind the music being on the forefront while the plot takes a back seat per se, but when your story ends up feeling like a collection of random individual scenes with some song and dancing thrown into the mix with little coherence, that’s a problem.

Not having ever seen the original Broadway production it’s hard to really tell just where the adaptation process went to horribly wrong in since I have no notion of what was changed or cut, but I have some notes on what I personally feel contributed to the demise of the movie version. Perhaps the single biggest mistake they made in the production was casting Diana Ross, who was already in her thirties by this point, as Dorothy. She might have had the star power to help to get the project funded in the first place, but when you’re watching the movie there’s really no way around the fact that she’s horrible as an aged up Dorothy. I don’t necessarily think it’s Ross’ performance at fault here, it’s just that it doesn’t play right when you have a thirty year old woman still acting like an adolescent lost child for majority of the story. It feels a bit silly,  no matter how much you emphasize the fact that she’s sort of timid and shy adult.

Another thing I have to criticize is the camera work when it comes to shooting the dance choreography. A lot of the time the camera is just  far too distant from the action and it often works counterproductive against the flair of the musical numbers, rendering the dancing feeling very static, sterile and remote. A good musical number ought to grab you by the collar and pull you into the song and mesmerize you with the beautiful dancing, but that very rarely happens in here. Whether or not this was some type of a conscious decision, trying to emulate the feeling of the stage production of the Wiz for example, I have no idea, but as far as the film adaptation goes the approach proved rather disastrous. In my opinion it really would have worked in the favor of the musical numbers if there were more powerful and intimate clever camera work. Well timed close ups of the main performers, fast cuts to more wider angle of the dance choreography being performed… just far more energy behind the camera work in general, because what we end up getting here was very emotionless and detached visual storytelling, lacking all the oomph that you wish the song and dance performances had.

Considering how the original Broadway musical was so successful, it’s rather odd that the musical numbers were so hit or miss in the movie version. For every catchy tune like “Ease on Down the Road” or “I’m a Mean Ole Lion”  you either had a complete miss (“Soon As I Get Home”) or a song which in theory seemed to have all the necessary ingredients for it to be a great toe tapper (“Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News”), yet somehow doesn’t ever quite manage to elevate to that level. A bit similarly I also for whatever reason couldn’t enjoy most of Diana Ross’ singing, even though there wasn’t really anything particular wrong about it. I just kept tuning out every time she had a longer solo number, since the way they shot those scenes were so boring and there was no cinematic strength in the number. It was only with the songs where Ross was singing along with her co-stars that I didn’t have a problem with her singing, which makes this seem like a very personal issue. But anyway, as far as the music goes, it’s basically all over the place in terms of quality. I think you had to wait roughly an hour before you even got to the first genuinely good song, “You Can’t Win, You Can’t Break Even” and what makes that song so good is largely because it’s performed by none other than Michael Jackson himself, who plays the brainless Scarecrow in the movie.

Speaking of Michael Jackson, he  was consistently the best thing about the entire movie. No hyperbole. He was what made this largely watchable. Every time he began singing, I genuinely started to care about what was happening in the movie again. And it’s no wonder the movie starts to improve considerably once his character enters the story, his pure enthusiasm and energy are like no other. He literally seems to elevate the quality of the movie with his sheer presence. His performance is so damn cheerful and pleasant to watch, outshining every other performance by a mile. You also have to give praise for his physical performance, as he has created a completely new physical language for his character, it’s amazing. It’s an incredibly nimble and quirky, kinda weird, but nevertheless oddly appropriate body language that he’s given the Scarecrow, and apparently Jackson developed it himself by studying animals and their graceful movements on video. And it shows, I don’t think there’s a single scene where he isn’t doing something remarkably graceful and interesting and a bit wacky with his limbs.

Despite the many problems infesting the movie, some of the ideas presented in the Wiz are actually pretty fun. This includes things such as the Wicked Witch of the West running an actual sweatshop, the fabled Emerald City being the World Trade Center plaza only with green lighting used to color the area look Emerald (though it does change to red and then gold almost immediately after the gang arrives there, by the decree of the Wizard), the fearsome flying monkeys being a motorbike gang, or how the Munchkins  were cursed by the Wicked Witch of the East to be graffiti tags on the park walls, which coincidentally happened to provide a really neat looking visual when the curse was lifted and the Munchkins began come back to life, peeling themselves off the walls and turning into three dimensional beings again.

There are also few things in the movie that are so weird that they end up being amusing just for the “what the hell am I watching” factor. One such thing is the recreation of the poppy field scene where Dorothy, the Lion and Toto fall asleep. In the movie this is re-imagined as the gang walking into a desolate alley, occupied by a group of prostitutes (the Poppy Girls) who nefariously attempt to put their unsuspecting victims to sleep by blowing sleeping dust on them. A bit earlier you also get a scene where the gang go into an underground subway station and get assaulted by increasingly weird threats, starting by a puppeteer peddler and his menacing growing puppets, which is then escalated by a pair of living trashcans that attempt to eat the Scarecrow with their giant metal teeth, and finally, featuring a horde of sentient support pillars trying to circle around and then crush Dorothy until the Lion in a rare instance of courage saves everyone with his animal strength. It’s easily one of the most bizarre sequences in the entire movie.

The Wiz might be a complete and utter mess as a movie but that doesn’t stop it from being an interesting failure, with few hidden gems. There are little things here and there that you can still appreciate if you have the time and patience to stop and look at it, such as the set design and costuming.  It’s pretty amazing looking set, and it’s pretty cool how they were able to create a very believable and charming feeling urban fantasy world by using actual New York City locations and just adding some color here and there to make it seem more magical. All in all, it’s far easier to appreciate the movie as an abstract idea than as a finished product. Maybe one day someone has the bright idea of attempting to remake this with better results.

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