Universal // 1978 // 135 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // February 11th, 2008
Don't nobody bring me no bad news.
Don't let the accolades fool you. From the brainstorm of a New York disc jockey to the toast of Broadway, the stage musical The Wiz encountered just as many development challenges as Louis B. Mayer did in 1939 adapting L. Frank Baum's best selling novel for MGM. But both projects were well worth the effort. It's too bad the same can't be said for this film.
Hollywood has long been mining Broadway for movie properties. For many years, musicals were a bottomless pit of source material, but that well started running dry during the late 1960s. By the time The Wiz became the darling of the Tony Awards in '75, many studios had already lost their shirts on attempts to keep the musical genre alive and few executives even dared entertain the idea of trying again. But producer Rob Cohen trudged forward with what appeared to be a futile mission, that is until it landed him a late night call from Motown's Berry Gordy. It seemed Diana Ross wanted to play Dorothy and Berry was going to help make that happen. Paramount already had a hit with Mahogany that year and Universal saw an opportunity to ride the coattails of Ms. Ross' popularity. With one star on the landscape, it quickly drew several more to the project including Diana's friend Michael Jackson, composer extraordinaire Quincy Jones, and director Sidney Lumet.
Wait, Sidney Lumet?! The guy who gave us Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network? That Sidney Lumet? Yep. It seems costume designer turned screenwriter, Joel Schumacher, whose first two scripts were Sparkle and Car Wash, was moving the story from Kansas to New York and who knows the city better than Lumet?
If you haven't already guessed by now, this project was a train wreck waiting to happen. Unfortunately, nobody involved saw it coming...or if they did, they bit their tongues, hard.
Diana Ross was 34 years old at the time, playing a 24 year old. Right. Oh, and her interpretation of how a 24 year old would react when faced with being swept away by a tornado, making it's way down a Bedford-Stuyvesant side street, in the middle of Thanksgiving snow storm, was by sobbing uncontrollably while crying out for her dog Toto. She carries that choice throughout the entire film. I kid you not. Even her exceptional voice doesn't save this performance, as Diana the actress is so affected by her emotions that it undermines any real musical credibility. But the responsibility for the film's failure does not rest solely on her supreme shoulders. There were plenty of co-conspirators.
The great Quincy Jones, who most everyone loves and respects, brought in R&B duo Ashford and Simpson to punch up Charlie Smalls music, which didn't really need any punching up at all. They tossed out the Scarecrow's opening number "I Was Born" in favor of an original song for Michael Jackson, and butchered several others such as "Soon As I Get Home" and "If You Believe." You know you have trouble when even the great Lena Horne can't deliver what should be the film's most moving number. But the music wasn't the worst of it. The film's structural problems lie with Lumet and Schumacher.
In reworking William Brown's stage book, Joel effectively strips away all of its intimacy and replaces it with larger than life sequences strung together with very little character development or genuine emotion. It's a story that wanders aimlessly from Dorothy's inexplicable isolation within her own family to her arrival in OZ where even less makes sense.
Lumet proceeds to overwhelm the screen with hundreds of dancers as graffiti imprisoned munchkins effectively swallowing up our main character in a sea of black lit darkness. He then twists New York into a cheesy wonderland that is so cavernous and deserted you almost expect to see Will Smith pop out and scream "I Am Legend!" And that emptiness embodies the plot, which has no real antagonist whatsoever. It's supposed to be Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King, What's Happening), but we only see her twice in the entire picture -- just long enough to sing and expire -- and her influence is barely felt anywhere else. This leaves our heroes with little to do but wander from warped NYC landmark to landmark -- Coney Island, the Library, Yankee Stadium, and the Subway -- until they eventually reach the Emerald City; which is basically the Manhattan skyline as seen from the George Washington bridge, with a gold apple serving as the Sun. Seriously.
Inside the city, we find another several hundred dancers eerily strutting their way around what is now Ground Zero, but used to the be plaza between Towers 1 and 2 of the World Trade Center. By the time Dorothy and the gang have their meeting with The Wiz, the audience could care less about what happens to them. We're just waiting for the film to end, while trying to figure out why Lumet keeps going back to that stupid "can't catch a cab in OZ" gag.
It's not all bad news though. Accomplished costume and production designer Tony Walton (Julie Andrews ex-husband) does a phenomenal job painting the characters and the landscape of OZ. One look at the stage costumes versus their onscreen counterparts and you'll get just a taste of his talent.
On the performance front, you have to acknowledge the exceptional work of Michael Jackson (still with his original face) as Scarecrow and Ted Ross as Fleetwood the Lion. Of course, Ted perfected this character inside and out through god only knows how many Broadway performances. The subtlety of his line delivery and facial expressions dwarf his more famous leading lady. Michael, on the other hand, in his film debut, is a wonder to behold. One could argue his craft was honed performing on stage from a very young age, but acting to camera is an entirely different skill and he nails it right out of the gate. As a result, Scarecrow has the most interesting journey of all the characters and proves to be the blissful heart and soul of this otherwise comatose patient.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Nipsey Russell as TinMan has his moments, but ultimately can't keep up with Michael and Ted. Lena Horne makes two brief appearances as Glinda the Good Witch of the South, surrounded by Anne Geddes-like babies, dressed as stars floating on black velvet. Don't ask me to explain. The image still creeps me out. Mabel King gets swallowed up by Stan Winston's prosthetics and loses much of Evillene's firey flavor from her Broadway incarnation. And, like Diana Ross, Richard Pryor's performance is overly affected. Even in his non-great-and-powerful-Wiz guise, you know there has to be some authenticity in there somewhere, but it's hard to make out amidst all the yelling.
Presented in what is supposed to be a remastered 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, the picture is dark and grainy while the colors appear washed out. There's not a lot of noticeable dirt or scratches on this transfer or a great deal of digital tampering, but the image just comes across as flat. The DTS and 5.1 surround tracks are a surprise, but don't get too excited. The channel separation is weak and the music doesn't hold a candle to the original Broadway cast album.
In terms of bonus materials, the 1978 production featurette "Wiz on Down the Road" is the centerpiece, detailing the origins of the film alongside interviews with Lumet and producer Rob Cohen. No interviews with the cast though. We also get the original theatrical trailer (void of any traditional narration) and an 8-track soundtrack CD. Not much of an anniversary gift, if you ask me.
With recent innovative adaptations like Rob Marshall's Chicago and Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd, there is plenty of life left in the movie musical. It's unfortunate The Wiz wasn't kept in cryogenic storage until it could be given its just due.
Parole is denied. Even 30 years later, Diana Ross, Joel Schumacher, Quincy Jones, and Sidney Lumet are still guilty of wizzin' all over this great Charlie Smalls musical.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* "Wiz on Down the Road"
* Theatrical Trailer
* Bonus Soundtrack CD
* Wikipedia: The Wiz (Original Motion Picture)
* IBDb: The Wiz
* Wikipedia: The Wiz (Original Broadway Musical)
* Fan Site - The Wiz: A Virtual Coffee Table Book