Universal // 1978 // 134 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // November 30th, 2010
The Motown remake of The Wizard of Oz!
Forty years after the original MGM musical, somebody got the radical idea to remake The Wizard of Oz with an African American cast of stars and a fresh urban approach. Okay, maybe it wasn't all that radical since it was already a proven commodity on the stage. It had been a wildly successful concept for a 1975 Broadway musical, but changes were going to be made along the way to get the production up on the silver screen. No longer was the classic story the stuff of Kansas farmlands and simple little girls with a dog, but now it was dystopian New York City boroughs and a thirty-three year old Supreme accompanied by Michael Jackson. The Wiz stands out as a flop that in 1978 closed a lot of doors. It brought an end to the "blaxpoitation" genre of films aimed at specific audiences that had produced hits like Shaft and Blacula. The lush production made studios lose faith in expensive musicals with the twenty-four million dollar project that only grossing thirteen million back at the U.S. box office. Diana Ross also became known as "box office poison," and The Wiz brought an end to her streak of successful film roles from Mahogany and Lady Sings the Blues. Yet as one door closes, another spectacular one opens. The Wiz brought together music producer Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson who went on to make the epic album Thriller that defined the '80s. Meanwhile, The Wiz remains a fan favorite of cult films being named #28 by Entertainment Weekly's 2003 ranking of such things. It's had a couple of sub par DVD releases, and now comes the Blu-ray to "ease on down the road."
Everything feels familiar with Dorothy going down a yellow brick road to seek the counsel of a wizard that will help her and three friends get some wishes fulfilled. But now Oz is Manhattan with a green Empire State building and hundreds of black fashionistas prancing in between the World Trade Center towers. There's even a huge apple moon, and the munchkins are now graffiti come to life on an inner city playground. Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more...
Some people find this flick a guilty pleasure while others slag it off as a misfire, but I have to admit to belonging to the former group. I know it's hardly classic, and the feature film treatment wasn't a great representation of the inventive 1975 musical that it was based on. They changed too much of it, and the overall tone is dark and mournful with some strange pop psychology thrown in during the overly long climax. Still, the wall to wall music and over the top production value are charming in a way. You can't deny that there's something electric whenever you see Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Lena Horne taking on a performance number for the big screen even if they may be miscast or surrounded by startlingly dark imagery. The film forgets the plot and the music is overwrought, but somehow The Wiz remains watchable and even entertaining in many ways despite obvious shortcomings. It's one of those films you love in spite of itself.
The problems are apparent, and they start with the casting of Diana Ross who was far too old at the time of filming to head this thing up. The Broadway show had fresh faced Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, and she had even been savvy enough to include in her contract first right of refusal should the play go to the big screen. Even Berry Gordy the founder of Motown was behind using Mills over Ross, but Diana was hellbent on playing the role which she thought was "ageless." Diana Ross basically told producers only she could get Michael Jackson as the scarecrow, and that he wouldn't be onboard without her along. Her campaign was relentless and eventually Berry Gordy had to throw his hands up. Original director John Badham was fired over his misgivings of using a thirty-three year old lead. Diana was in and Mills was out, all over an ego battle that would effect casting two lead roles. Ross seems out of place both age-wise and emotionally. She's playing too young, and her solution seems to be to tear up and be on the brink of a crying jag at every moment.
Only two veterans of the successful stage show appeared in the film including Ted Ross who had won a Tony for his work on Broadway as the Cowardly Lion and What's Happening star Mabel King reprised her Wicked Witch part. The rest of the cast were popular African American celebrities who could bring in the audiences. Richard Pryor (Superman III) came on as the Wiz even though he admittedly could not sing or dance. Comedian and '70s game show legend Nipsey Russell brought the Tin Man to life, and screen legend Lena Horne (who was director Sidney Lumet's mother in-law at the time) took on the Good Witch role. They all seem to do fine jobs, though none of them seem to have the sense of magic or wonder that Michael Jackson had.
Odd choices were made about the production which would mainly be filmed on sets in a new facility outside of New York City. Sidney Lumet (Serpico) was brought in to direct simply because he seemed to know New York and delivered films on budget and on time. He had a dark sensibility though, and had never helmed a musical. His sole purpose was to reject anything about the 1939 film, and so he injected a lot of drab palettes and twisted elements that gave the film a strange mournful aura. Joel Schumacher (Batman and Robin) penned the script, and rumor has it he and Diana Ross had an agenda to insert a lot of not so hidden messages straight from their love of EST workshops. The story does seem to hammer home the power of the individual, and there is a New Age spirituality that colors everything. Quincy Jones and song writing duo Ashford and Simpson were tasked with reworking the songs and even adding some new ones along the way. In case you were wondering Michael Jackson's "You Can't Win" was actually a number dropped from the musical during the stage development. It was originally sung by the workers of the Wicked Witch and not the Scarecrow, but was repurposed for Jackson's introduction.
Despite all the glaring errors and the wrong idea to try and reimagine a movie classic, I still love The Wiz for several reasons. First up, it stands as a tribute to many of the artists who are no longer with us. Michael Jackson turned in a remarkable performance as the scarecrow, and the film is a testament to his powerful presence. He is wide eyed, innocent, and completely brilliant as he twirls and spins his way through the film. Richard Pryor, Ted Ross, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, and Mabel King all have passed away, and here we have them all in their prime. On an equally sad note we see glimpses of old New York including a poignant cameo of the World Trade Center and its pavilion serving as the palace of the Wiz himself. And even though the music is probably overworked for the film, I can't deny the power of songs like "Ease on Down the Road," "Home," and "Believe in Yourself."
No matter what your feelings are on the film and its content, the Blu-ray offers a major step up in the visual department from previous incarnations. The most striking feature of the new transfer is that much of the grain that marred the DVD releases has been fixed and removed. Colors are deeper and richer, although the film does still look a bit dark almost murky throughout. Somehow I suspect that has everything to do with director Sidney Lumet's direction more than actual technical issues. Digital noise reduction is not an issue either, and the result is The Wiz looks far better than it did even in 1978. About the only error comes up with the reds which seem off at times, but again this may be more about the original source material.
A five channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack punches up everything beyond the original's simple stereo, and now the score is in full surround. Individual voices are discernible even when the four leads do quartet work like in "Ease on Down the Road" sequences. The Wiz sounds as good as it looks, and it's a real treat to finally have the score at full blast in every speaker.
Extras unfortunately remain the same from previous DVD releases. Included is a thirteen minute "Wiz on Down the Road" vintage making of featurette which looks like you'd expect coming from 1978. It barely gives us much information or insight, but does have some nice raw footage from the sets. There is a spoiler laden vintage trailer which is also in standard definition to give viewers an idea just how cleaned up the main feature truly is. BD-Live is there if you want to join an on-line discussion of the film, but it hardly seems worth the effort with so little available on-line.
The Blu-ray edition of The Wiz offers the cult classic a superior technical transfer along with the same old extras. Fans of the film will be pleased to see that grain has been removed and clarity has been deepened within the picture. Those with large screen televisions and great sound systems should be dancing around and singing "Can you feel a brand new day?" in celebration. I wished it had offered more supplemental material, but it is nice to see Michael Jackson in his signature film role finally on high definition. Detractors of the film will just see the cracks and faults of a leading lady past her prime, a director with a dark edge, and a script that offers a New Age take on a classic tale. The Wiz seemed bound and determined not to do anything similar to The Wizard of Oz, and in the end that may have been its undoing.
Guilty of not realizing where it can't win, but still free to ease on down
Review content copyright © 2010 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (French)
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 134 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Vintage Featurette