Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (March 8, 2011)
Time to stroll down memory lane with a childhood favorite of mine: 1978’s The Wiz. Adapted from the hit 1970s Broadway musical – itself based on The Wizard of Oz, of course - The Wiz introduces us to Dorothy (Diana Ross), a shy and meek Harlem school teacher who never ventured out of her neighborhood. Her Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) prods her to take some chances, but Dorothy remains reluctant to bust out of her shell.
Matters soon change whether Dorothy likes it or not. When her pooch Toto runs into the street during a violent winter storm, woman and dog find themselves blown away in a mid-city twister. Guided by Glinda, the Good Witch of the South (Lena Horne), they land in Munchkinland, where Dorothy accidentally kills Evermean, the Wicked Witch of the East. This delights the Munchkins and makes her their hero.
But you knew that already, didn’t you? Suffice it to say that The Wiz follows the standard Oz template pretty closely, albeit with some urban twists. The settings relate to New York instead of the original’s fantasy, and we see a few altered characters, though the usual standbys come along for the ride. That roster includes the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson), the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell), the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross), Evillene the Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King) and “The Wiz” himself (Richard Pryor). Dorothy works to find the Wiz and go home as well as help her new pals get their wishes. You get no points if you guess the ending.
Longtime readers of this site know that I maintain a pretty active dislike toward musicals, so it may come as a surprise to learn that I used to feel very differently. Back as a kid in the 1970s, I loved musicals and saw a bunch of stage productions with my Mom. In 1978, we took in a performance of The Wiz and I adored it. I couldn’t wait to see the movie, which I also really enjoyed. In fact, I saw it six times in the theaters and regarded it as my all-time favorite film for about six months or so. (When you’re a kid, your passions change frequently.)
I couldn’t tell you the last time I saw The Wiz, but now that I view it as a man in my early forties, all I can do is shake my head and wonder what the heck was wrong with me back then. Bloated, dull and totally without spark, The Wiz fails to deliver a good movie musical experience.
The Wiz comes from a very specific time in black culture, what I regard as the “jive turkey” era. There was a brief window during which African-Americans could utter that phrase and not sound absolutely absurd, and the flick appeared during that span. Not only does The Wiz boast that insult – at the 35-minute and 30-second mark – but also it just feels like a part of the “jive turkey” universe. It’s a very 1970s sense of black attitude and culture.
This was refreshing at the time, and it actually marked a period of black empowerment in the mainstream culture. I think something like The Wiz - an adaptation of a beloved classic without a white face to be found on screen – couldn’t have existed 15 years earlier, or even 10 years prior, perhaps. Maybe the volatile late 1960s could’ve produced an all-black production like this, but I think it would’ve been much more “civil rights oriented”, which would be a negative. Part of the joy of The Wiz as a cultural statement came from the way that it paid no conscious debt toward the struggles of the blacks. It was real progress to see a production with a black sensibility but not bogged down with a sense that it had to prove anything ala social dramas like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
With all that going for it, some of the decisions behind the cinematic Wiz genuinely perplex. When you want to bring an urban, African-American version of a classic fantasy to the big screen, who do you call? Why, obviously you pick a 54-year-old white man best known for dramatic fare like Network and 12 Angry Men. Seriously – what could go wrong?
All sarcasm aside, Sidney Lumet seemed like a perplexing choice to direct The Wiz 30 years ago, and time hasn’t made his selection seem any more sensible – especially when confronted with the end result. Nothing in Lumet’s career prior to The Wiz indicated a flair for this sort of light material, and he never displayed a talent for musical comedy again. (Granted, he never attempted that sort of fare after 1978 – can you blame him?)
Perhaps it wasn’t inevitable that Lumet would turn out a poor adaptation of The Wiz, as directors often overcome their apparent genre restrictions. After all, Tim Burton created a solid rendition of Sweeney Todd despite no experience with musicals – and a personal aversion to the format.
Why did Burton’s Todd succeed artistically while Lumet’s Wiz flopped? Because Burton made Todd something of his own, while Lumet brought none of himself to The Wiz. Okay, that might not be totally true, as the native New Yorker probably enjoyed his portrayal of Gotham take on Oz. Some of the film’s few cool moments come from the clever methods it uses to turn the Big Apple into Oz.
Otherwise, I see nothing of Lumet in The Wiz, and he shows no affinity for either the material or the format. The film comes utterly devoid of pizzazz or joy. Lumet gives us a stiff, bland presentation without a sense of motion. Shots remain static and awkward, and nothing ever flows. Lumet clearly has no idea how to stage big musical numbers; it often feels like he plops the camera randomly and hopes for the best.
If Lumet compensated with concise storytelling, his lack of visual flair wouldn’t harm the flick so much. However, The Wiz rambles and meanders so much that we never get involved in the tale or characters. Some of the blame comes from the endless production numbers, as too many of the song go on forever and wear out their welcome; the tedious “red/green/gold” intro to the Emerald City proves especially numbing. Even without these overly long songs, though, Lumet shows no ability to tell an interesting story here.
Many of the casting choices falter as well. 34-year-old Diana Ross as 24-year-old Dorothy? That’s a big stretch, but I could forgive it if Ross showed any life in the role. Sure, she’s supposed to be meek and mild at the start, but she never grows. She remains flat and forgettable from start to finish. Pryor proves equally bland as the Wiz, and wisecracking comedian Russell remains an odd choice for this sort of film; his speak-singing drags his numbers to a halt.
On the surface, the choice of Lena Horne as Glinda sounds good. In reality, it becomes a disaster. Her rendition of “Believe” turns into the schmaltziest, most over the top performance in the flick, and it completely ruins any possibility that the film could end on an emotional note. Horne embarrasses herself and the audience with her insanely wild rendition of the tune.
On the positive side, Jackson offers a sweet, light and lively turn as the Scarecrow, and Ted Ross – a veteran of the stage Wiz - feels totally in his element. His lion shows wonderful bluster and heart in a performance the equal of Bert Lahr’s work in the 1939 Oz. They form two of the rare highlights in this production.
The Wiz also boasts some catchy tunes. “Ease on Down the Road” remains a winner, and I always liked Jackson’s “You Can’t Win”. The musical production doesn’t do the tunes any favors, unfortunately. They get a bland, safe sense that makes them less vibrant than they should be. Still, they often delight and help make the movie more palatable.
Unfortunately, some fun songs and a few good performances can’t overcome the many negatives that mar The Wiz. With a more appropriate direction and a few better casting choices, this could’ve been a memorable movie musical. The end result just doesn’t work, however.
Minor aside: how in the world did The Wiz get a “G” rating? I’d think the one-time use of the word “hell” as profanity would be enough for a “PG”. When you add to that the torture of our main characters, quite a few creepy elements, and disturbing images like the curled-back fingers of Evillene, it stuns me to see that “G” attached to the film.