Only in the 70s: The Wiz (1978)
CONCLUDING Musical May at Film Torments is one of the strangest mis-steps in a respected director’s career. From the creator of Network, Serpico and 12 Angry Men comes 1978’s Motown-tinged retelling of the Oz story: The Wiz.
I’ve been a huge fan of the Oz series since childhood, and although the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland is hardly a perfect adaptation, it’s the one which has the firmest nostalgic grip on the world. Whenever anybody does anything Oz related, the vast majority of people will link it to that movie rather than to L. Frank Baum’s original book series. As such, making new versions of the story is usually a fool’s errand. Even The Muppets couldn’t pull it off.
However, those creative types just can’t keep their mitts off Oz. Author Gregory Maguire has bought at least one new house from his series of gratuitously adulterised prequels (the first of which served as the basis for the long-running musical Wicked), Disney have made a sequel in the 80s and recent prequel with Oz: The Great and Powerful. There was even the unremarkable Tin Man miniseries a few years back… the list goes on and on and interminably on, especially now that the books are in the public domain.
One of the most endearing assets of the original stories, and the best-known film, is the folksy Americana of it, but that does have its downsides. Having been made in the same year when the first ever black Oscar nominee wasn’t allowed to sit with the other nominees in case the cameras caught her there, The Wizard of Oz is distinctly Caucasian. Be glad they removed the blackface polisher characters at the last minute (not a joke – the Tin Man was originally going to be polished by blacked-up white guys…). There’s also the fact that L. Frank Baum was a little too keen on white supremacy and didn’t care a jot for those Natives.
Of all the needless remakes and prequels, one of the only adaptations which really had a distinct identity, separate from the 1939 movie, was the 1974 musical The Wiz, produced with an all-black cast and a Motown-esque score. Broadway was between golden ages when The Wiz came along and won the Tony for Best Musical, when only Stephen Sondheim was making much of a splash, and the need for something new and modern was perfectly timed for the show. Black music was enjoying more mainstream success than ever before, and The Wiz rode the trend. The film adaptation was quickly arranged, with a healthy budget and several of Motown’s biggest stars clambering for roles.
Unfortunately, the script which had simply been a funkier take on the same story about a young girl from Kansas being spirited away in a tornado to a colourful dream world was handed over to director Sidney Lumet and writer Joel Schumacher. They might have been trying to make a point when they decided Dorothy should be a grown twenty-something teacher living in Harlem who makes every effort NOT to venture beyond her own backyard (contrast Judy Garland’s version) played by a thirty-something Diana Ross in downright unattractive “plain” makeup. Diana Ross was as sexy and glamourous as they came in her prime, but her beautiful singing clashes horribly with the characterisation as a mousy coward.
The less disastrous casting choice of Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow was truly inspired. Say what you will about his personal life and his increasing insanity; MJ was the King of Pop for a reason. He belts the hell out of his songs, and was giddily excited to be in the film. He’s clearly just loving it, and he’s contagious to watch. Ted Ross reprises his Broadway performance as the Cowardly Lion, who just like the ’39 film arrives last but gets the lion’s share of funny lines and songs once he’s there. It’s not easy for anybody to follow Burt Lahr’s classic Lion, but Ross has energetic songs, an awesome baritone and boundless charisma.
Sadly, there’s one non-singer in the core quartet to balance out all that talent; comedian and talk show regular Nipsey Russell plays the Tin Man with one of the most irritatingly unfunny performances you’ll ever see. Russell was a hilarious man, but this isn’t the film to showcase it. The Tin Man bursts into tears at the drop of a hat just as you’d expect, but with the most grating squeal every time. Add onto that a singing voice which can barely even manage three-note recitative sections, and you’re left scratching your head as to why this guy was chosen for a musical. It really puts the Russell Crowe situation into perspective.
Other stand-out performers include Lena Horne, Thelma Carpenter and Mabel King as the witches of the South, North and West respectively. They may only get a single song each, but they perform the hell out of all of them. Rounding out the lead cast is comedy legend Richard Pryor as the con-artist “Wiz”. This film has numerous flaws, but lack of talent is the last of them.
The worst mistake of it all is that they gave this project to one of the greatest directors in history, and presumed he knew what he was doing. Sidney Lumet is one of my heroes, and his name being attached to this baffles me. Lumet’s list of great films is among the longest and most impressive of all time (Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, 12 Angry Men… it just goes on and on) and he had a fair few stage-to-film adaptations to his name. This film is possibly his only total failure.
Joel Schumacher, whose attempts to make the play even more urban fail miserably, was a couple of decades from destroying Batman and he’s who I would prefer to blame. Sadly, it wasn’t his decision to film the biggest song in the movie, ‘Ease on Down the Road’, with a series of static long-distant shots where you only see Michael Jackson and Diana Ross from behind as they dance around aimlessly for three minutes. Lumet made the choice to build huge sets and then only get one tediously static angle on them for an entire number where they float in a black void. It’s shockingly uninspired direction, and it’s no surprise that he has no more musicals on his long list of works.
Lumet needed to study what worked in the camerawork of West Side Story, which made urban environments dynamic and dangerous. There, the camera was choreographed as much as the dancers and used focused colour choices to make even the drabbest colour scheme explosive. If he’d put a bit more of that approach into this film, he would have caught the performances in a more exciting way. Instead, the whole film feels like a dance party being watched through a window rather than the front seat of a Broadway show.
I don’t recommend watching The Wiz in its entirety: It’s depressingly poor filmmaking and cluelessly misuses its talented cast. I do, however, recommend looking up a few odd numbers (‘Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News’, ‘I’m a Mean Old Lion’, ‘You Can’t Win’ and ‘A Brand New Day’ are the best of the bunch), and the Broadway soundtrack is an enjoyable treat. In the meantime, treat yourself to a Sidney Lumet marathon one day and leave The Wiz as far away as he left the camera… far, far, far away from anything interesting.