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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 34: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Wizard of Oz (1939) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Judy Garland follows the yellow brick road.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The elements in The Wizard of Oz powerfully fill a void that exists inside many children. For kids of a certain age, home is everything, the center of the world. But over the rainbow, dimly guessed at, is the wide earth, fascinating and terrifying. There is a deep fundamental fear that events might conspire to transport the child from the safety of home and strand him far away in a strange land. And what would he hope to find there? Why, new friends, to advise and protect him. And Toto, of course, because children have such a strong symbiotic relationship with their pets that they assume they would get lost together.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

As I spent my high school and college years mostly tracking down transgressive films from the 70s, 80s, and beyond that broke away from the Old Hollywood studio system tradition, I lost touch with the merits of what that mammoth system could produce. My entry back into the strange (and often problematic) majesty of Old Hollywood triumphs has been the miracle of Technicolor, a discontinued color film treatment that produced the most intense, intoxicating hues to ever touch celluloid. My interest in Technicolor was initially piqued by giallo pictures like Suspiria and Blood & Black Lace, but as I’ve gotten further down the rabbit hole more mainstream titles like The Red Shoes & To Catch a Thief have been even more rewarding in their use of the medium. It was wonderful, then, to return to the Technicolor mecca of The Wizard of Oz by watching it on the big screen at the storied Prytania Theatre at this point in my life. Narratively, I know every beat in the Hollywood Classic by heart thanks to its omnipresence on television in my youth, but returning to its Technicolor delights after this decades-long break was a downright magical experience for me, one of my all-time most affecting trips to the cinema.

Although there are plenty of behind the scenes stories about the technical feats & real world evils that had to be pulled off to make The Wizard of Oz possible, the film still feels like a magical object that was conjured into the world instead of being made by human hands. 80s years have passed since its initial release, but the film’s bizarre energy & Technicolor beauty feel just as potent as ever, as if they were broadcast directly from a teen girl’s dream instead of being staged by a crew of hundreds on a movie studio sound stage. A production design triumph & featuring lavish costumes by Adrian (who also designed the fashion for fellow 1939 Technicolor wonder The Women), The Wizard of Oz is blatant in its artificiality at every turn, yet through some kind of dark movie magic fools you into seeing beyond its closed sets into an endless, beautifully hellish realm. I’m sure there were plenty musicals released in 1939 that have been forgotten by time, but it’s no mystery why this is the one that has endured as an esteemed classic. Even when staring directly at the seams where the 3D set design meets the painted backdrop of an endless landscape, I see another world, not a mural on the wall. It’s the closest thing I can recall to lucid dreaming, an experience that can be accessed by the push of the play button.

When recalling the visual delights of its Technicolor fantasy, it’s easy to forget that the reverie depicted in The Wizard of Oz is a stress dream, essentially a nightmare. Young Kansan teen Dorothy Gale has an especially awful day on the hell hole farm where she lives with her aunt & uncle, thanks to an evil neighbor who vows to have her dog Toto “destroyed,” as well as a tornado that threatens her home & knocks her unconscious. This early sequence is shot in the grim sepiatone of a German Expressionist film, which harshly contrasts with the intense Technicolor submersion of the dreamworld the tornado transports her to, Oz. Dorothy’s subconscious processes the terror of her day through a dream quest that reinterprets the  people in her life, good & bad, as fantasy characters: talking lions, animated scarecrows, wizards, witches, etc. Along with her newfound fantasy friends, Dorothy journeys to find qualities within herself she didn’t know she was missing: wisdom, compassion, bravery. As with other films I watched on loop as a child (especially Burton titles like Beetlejuice & Pee-wee’s Big Adventure), her journey feels much longer & more enduring in memory. Returning to it as an adult, the whole ordeal flies by and Dorothy is clicking her ruby slippers home in no time. There’s an intense energy to The Wizard of Oz that adapts the L. Frank Baum books of its 1900s source material into a kind of narrative whirlwind that tears across the screen like Kansas flatland.

The Wizard of Oz is just as terrifying as it is gorgeous. The special effects of its opening, reality-distorting twister still feels like a technical marvel, much more tactile in its impact than any modern CG disaster film. The indoor, hand-constructed sets of Oz feel like a kind of amusement park (and Oz was, indeed, made into a North Carolina amusement park that has since mostly been abandoned), but the sweeping camera movements & impossibly rich color suggest a majesty far beyond any knowable reality. The army of flying monkeys & bright red hellfire commanded by the main villain, the Wicked Witch of the West, are appropriately nightmarish, but also impressive in their construction. The massive cast of little people who populate the film’s Munchkinland sequence bear a real world horror in the actors’ mistreatment & exploitation, but the visual effect they amount to as they swarm across the screen is undeniably impressive. Even the film’s songs, which could afford to be shoddy given the visual majesty that surrounds them, are beautiful in their emotional tragedy. It’s difficult to imagine a world without Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as Dorothy, but the ubiquitousness of that performance’s cultural footprint has done little to undercut its emotional gutpunch or its gorgeous tones. There’s an amoral evil lurking behind The Wizard of Oz‘s ancient production history that makes both the terror & the majesty of its Technicolor allure feel eternally relevant & almost crippling.

I’d have to write an entire book (and I doubt I’d be the first) to cover the entirety of The Wizard of Oz’s merits & impact, from cultural echoes like Wicked to queer adoption of Dorothy’s travel companions to the sordid backstage rumors that taint its onscreen magic with an undercurrent of real world terror. As many people already see the film annually thanks to television broadcast cycles, I can’t even do much in the way of recommending the world give it another look. It’s always getting another look. All I can really report for now is that in terms of constructing a Technicolor dreamscape, there’s still nothing quite like it. It was one of the first and it’s still one of the best, a legacy I understand even more clearly now that I better grasp the merits of Hollywood’s studio system past and have had the chance to see it projected it big & loud with an appreciative crowd.

Roger’s Rating (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Royal Wedding (1951)

-Brandon Ledet