If you’ve never heard me speak of the 1978 big screen musical, The Wiz, then you have missed out on one of my greatest rants ever. One of my lifelong friends, Norola Morgan, recently linked to adollarshortblog on her website http://moonyoonits.tumblr.com (you should check it out, as she interviews artists from various genres and locations) In return, I offered to link to her site, provided that she give me a subject to review. So, here it is…my review…of…The Wiz.
Think back to Judy Garland skipping down the yellow brick road of Oz. Remember the innocence of The Cowardly Lion? The beauty of Dorothy singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow? The life and magic that lasted for over 70 years? Well, take all of that, mug it, beat it, and leave it in a dark alley to die and you have The Wiz.
Here is a run down of the movie;
A middle aged substitute teacher, Dorothy, (played by an adult Diana Ross) lives at “home” with her Aunt and Uncle. Sadly, the only companion that puts up with her is her dog, Toto. Oh, no…wait…He makes a run for it into a snowstorm in what I can only imagine is an attempt to choose a frozen death over living with his owner any longer. Even the opening number is sort of reminiscent of a southern black funeral hymn. How appropriate… Shouldn’t the opening number energize you for things to come? I guess that only applies in good musicals.
Realizing her social skills are non-existent and feeding into her co-dependency, she races into the storm to find her four-legged prisoner…I mean…”friend”. If you look carefully, you can see Toto mouth the words “Dear lord…it’s starting.”
Dorothy lands in a demented playground inhabited by graffiti children and we are introduced to an old accountant turned bag lady, who is really a mildly powerful witch named Miss One. Giving credit where credit is due, Thelma Carpenter’s performance as Miss One is the first truly enjoyable moment of the film with her song “He’s The Wiz”. But all good things must come to an end, and Diana Ross begins her trek down the yellow brick road in search of her dignity (It was Ross’s idea to do a film version of the stage musical and for her to be cast as Dorothy).
She soon meets up with the Scarecrow, played by Michael Jackson. Not the white woman that became a punchline Michael Jackson, but the big-nosed insecure living in reality Michael Jackson. While Jackson might have been mostly chosen for name, his natural performance style was a perfect meld with the character of the Scarecrow.
Some racially stereotypical crows come out and taunt Scarecrow (a feeling Michael would get used to) until Diana Ross’s screeching runs them off. Once Dorothy looks into the Scarecrow’s eyes, they both realize they want to be each other. Ross wants to be relevant again and Jackson wants to be a glamorous woman. They take off down the road in search of the Wiz so that Dorothy can get home and the Scarecrow can get a paycheck.
Next stop? An abandoned amusement park. Seriously, it is like Oz was a 70’s version of a Tim Burton / early Peter Jackson creation. In here, we find probably my favorite character who sings my favorite song from the movie. Nipsey Russel’s Tin Man is the most touching character to me. He’s honest and loveable, with his soft-shoe and troubled relationship with Teenie. By the time he gets to his song “What Would I Do?”, he had my full admiration.
But, the movie quickly returns to its bizarreness by the time we reach the Cowardly Lion, who is the most feminine of all the cast members. He’s good, but so gay it makes RuPaul say “Girl, turn it down a notch.” He’s so gay it’s distracting. He’s so gay he makes Michael Jackson look butch. He’s a mean ole Lion and he sings so in a fun little drag number. His entire presence screams “You’re my backup singers, so b*tch, back up!”
Next, there is a drug den, some bouncing monsters, a gross monkey motorcycle gang, Diana Ross crying and screaming a lot…which all leads up to the villain, Evillene.
Somewhere in this mess was the one scene…the one chunk of my life I truly wanted back. It was the musical number about colors. That’s right. We take a walk down a sexy Sesame Street where the people of Oz spend what feels like an hour singing about Red, then Blue, then Yellow, then Green…for no real reason other than to assault us with a horn section.
So our heroes are captured and tortured by the Wicked Witch and her leathery slaves, before flushing her down a large toilet. Dorothy screams and cries yet again…eyes bugged out…Was Ross playing as Billie Holliday playing Dorothy?
The slaves begin to strip down to what is really just underwear and dance around for another chunk of my life to “Brand New Day”. It’s a good song…in fact, most of the songs are wonderful. The music is the shimmery shiny of the project. But I am distracted by the near-nudity and Ross’s inability to dance like Michael Jackson, though you can tell she really wants to.
Our heroes are victorious and return to the great Wiz in order to receive their rewards, only to discover it’s Richard Pryor cowering in the shadows (perhaps to avoid as much screen time as possible in this sad nightmare). For one final moment, Diana Ross decides to try to push beyond over acting when she discovers the Wiz is just a normal man with no way to keep his promises, by just screeching into the camera like a banshee for 5 minutes.
When Ross finally settles down, we are subjected to the worst travesty of the film. If you know anything of Lena Horne, she was one of the early African American sex symbols on film. She was a siren, a songstress, a beauty…So what do you do with all of that lovely talent? Put her in a shimmery moo-moo on a sound stage, and suspend a bunch of infants around her. That’s what you freakin’ do! I’m not making this up. It’s just the final strange straw that broke the strange camel’s back. I’m not entirely sure what they were trying to convey, unless it was a PSA for drug use.
The movie ends like falling off a cliff. Dorothy sings a final solo, giving it her all (her best moment), in an extreme close-up where you can only see her face. When she finishes, we pull back and realize she is back home, ready to live out the rest of her life as a single substitute teacher living with her guardians and her dog with no better social skills than she had at the beginning. At best, she had a journey that taught her to not eat spicy Italian before bed. At worst, she’s still lying in the alley with a heroine syringe in her arm, hallucinating about flying monkeys, homosexual felines, and a large toilet.
The concept is brilliant for a Wizard of Oz make-over. It’s not the script or the idea that unnerves me. The approach of examining the urban/African American plight is not lost (they touch on education, gangs, drugs, relationships) and I love that. Yes, the sets were like the south side of Oz, but they were supposed to have a ghetto New York feel. Quincy Jones did outstanding with music.
However, this film as a whole, is something you should watch for the sheer misuse of star-power in black cinema. The credits rolling were like waking from a bad dream. If you want to see what The Wiz should be, try to find the original Broadway production with Stephanie Mills or go catch a professional production. For the movie, the title would be a great title to describe what it feels like this movie did on me.
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