The Wiz (1978)

While still feeling the high of seeing The Wizard of Oz projected on the big screen earlier that morning, I took the opportunity to catch up with one of its stranger cultural echoes. Return to Oz inspired many childhood nightmares and Wicked sparked plenty a backseat singalong, but the legacy of The Wiz is much more difficult to pinpoint. The most expensive movie musical ever made (at the time of its release), The Wiz was a massive critical & commercial flop. Star power as potent as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor all working in their 1970s prime did little to save it from pans & lackluster receipts in ’78, but did afford the film a cultural longevity. A Wizard of Oz-based musical with an all-black cast is a fascinating concept with instant cultural appeal, a memory many children of the ’70s remember fondly even if its reputation at the time was dogshit. Many cite The Wiz‘s financial failure as leading directly to white movie producers killing the era’s blacksploitation boom, believing black-led media to no longer be profitable. After all, if a musical spectacle starring former members of The Supremes & The Jackson 5 directed by one of the most well-respected filmmakers of his time can’t make money at the box office, what black-marketed film could? The problem, of course, was not a lack of interest in the market, but a legitimate deficiency in the product being sold. To put it lightly, The Wiz is a total fucking mess.

Besides the typical energy & passion deficiencies that haunt all cynical cashgrabs with ludicrously bloated budgets, the main problem The Wiz struggles with is authenticity. The film’s superstar cast and association with Motown Records (including a Quincy Jones soundtrack), suggest a black culture authenticity at first glance, but its white producers & filmmaking team undercut that perspective significantly. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) and written by Joel Schumacher (Batman & Robin, Flatliners, The Number 23), The Wiz often feels like an embarrassing, borderline offensive approximation of black culture. Sequences involving sweatshop workers & humanoid crows in particular feel dangerously close to a minstrel act (with the crows being no less embarrassing than the ones depicted in Disney’s Dumbo four decades earlier, sadly). Even the film’s Motown-flavored soundtrack feels watered down & whitewashed for a wider (read: whiter) audience. The Wiz also can’t help but feel like an oddly cheap knockoff of the 1939 Wizard of Oz film, because of its rights issues. Based off a musical stage play that shares the same source material with the Technicolor classic, The Wiz was legally allowed to reference the L. Frank Baum books, but not elements of the original film. Dorothy can click her slippers, but they have to be silver, not ruby red. She can journey across the yellow brick road, but she has to “easy on down,” not “follow” it. Everything about The Wiz just feels slightly off in that way. Its basic hook is fertile ground for an amazing Wizard of Oz adaptation (and a lot of people very much enjoyed the recent NBC broadcast staging of the same play), but every odd step in its production amounted to a massive miscalculation. The fact that it could be great with a different creative team and less of a Studio Notes ethos makes the experience of watching it all the more frustrating too. I really wanted to enjoy it.

Diana Ross stars as Dorothy Gale (duh), a twenty-something school teacher who spends nearly her entire life couped up inside her family’s Harlem apartment. Ross plays Dorothy as scared & fragile, with none of Judy Garland’s awe-filled excitability. Her stress dream about traveling to Oz is triggered more by her fear of leaving the safety of her home than anxiety over her dog & the weather, although Toto does venture outside just in time for the two to be swept up in a tornado (snownado? snowclone?) in the Harlem snow. Unlike in the 1939 picture, Oz is an enclosed environment. Dorothy smashes through the ceiling and lands in a giant bowl of grits (*eyeroll*). The story doesn’t deviate much from the source material from there, except in its production design & characterization details. Characters have a tendency to speak exclusively in slang (or Joel Schumacher’s estimation of slang) and the world they populate had a grey, concrete “urban” look instead of the 1939 film’s vibrant Technicolor atmosphere. Michael Jackson plays the scarecrow, protecting a sunflower patch outside NYC housing projects. Comedian Nipsey Russell plays the Tin Man as a theme park automaton attached to a Coney Island rollercoaster. The lion starts as a concrete statue; the Munchkins are animated graffiti; the poppy fields are a corner of street hookers, etc. etc. etc. Only Lena Horne’s presence as an astral version of The Good Witch & Richard Pryor’s befuddled version of The Wizard aren’t marinated in Urban Flavor to “modernize” the material, but the relative blandness and the movie’s interminable 130min runtime raise questions audiences should probably never had to ask, like “Will this ever end?” or “Is Richard Pryor funny?” Anyway, Dorothy & her pals ease on the road, get an eyeful in Emerald City, defeat an evil witch, and then magically will themselves back to Harlem after learning about the wisdom, compassion, and courage they had in themselves all along or whatever.

As The Wiz is an eternal limbo of white men misinterpreting black culture into an overproduced, bafflingly boring mess of a late 70s musical, the best modern audiences can hope to mine from it is novelty as a cultural relic. The music is just as soulless & forgettable as Diana Ross & Richard Pryor’s asleep-at-the-wheel performances; Nipsey Russell’s robotic one-liners about STDs & his ex-wife get lamer by the minute. That essentially just leaves Michael Jackson’s scarecrow to carry the weight of making this exhausting display of oddball decisions feel at all worthwhile. He does okay. The costume designers rob him of his youthful beauty by drowning him fleshy neck & chin prosthetics, but he’s still a consistently magnetic presence with a golden voice. My favorite image in the entire film is a subway-set scene where two sentient trash cans attempt to eat Michael Jackson alive. That pretty much sums up the entire enterprise. I was frequently impressed with the massive scale of The Wiz‘s production design; the disco number set at The Emerald City was especially gorgeous in that respect (before it had time to outlast your patience). Its look is much more drab than the Technicolor dreamscape of its 1939 predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The dour look of the film echoes its more decidedly tragic tone, at least in the way Ms. Ross chose to play it. The problem is that the story its visual achievements serve is both punishingly boring & embarrassingly miscalculated. I’d love to see what a modern black filmmaker could do with this same material (and it sounds like I should at least catch up with its recent The Wiz Live! revival), but Lumet’s film ultimately amounts to a fascinating misfire at best. As is, it likely shouldn’t even exist.

-Brandon Ledet

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