Catering a new version of The Wizard of Oz to African-American audiences was a novel idea—hence the success of the 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz, which combined funky songs and an urban milieu to draw a parallel between L. Frank Baum’s timeless Oz stories and the longing for a better life that’s experienced by many inner-city denizens. Yet one could argue that generating an all-black show marginalized African-American culture as much as, say, the lily-white casting of the beloved 1939 The Wizard of Oz movie. However, it’s probably best not to delve into thorny racial politics here. Rather, the relevant question is whether The Wiz justifies its own existence in purely aesthetic terms. Based on this lavish film adaptation (which, to be fair, involved heavy changes to the source material), the answer is no. Dull, gloomy, overwrought, and weighed down by Diana Ross’ ridiculous casting as a fresh-faced youth, The Wiz is a chore to watch.
Improbably, the film was directed by Sidney Lumet, best known for making such gritty dramas as Dog Day Afternoon (1975), though trivia buffs may dig noting that Lumet cast his then-mother-in-law, singing legend Lena Horne, in a pivotal role. Anyway, the basic story is familiar: Dorothy (Ross) gets transported to the magical land of Oz, where she hooks up with companions for a trip down the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wiz, whom she hopes can help her get home. You know the drill—wicked witch, enchanted shoes, click your heels together, and so on. Every element is tweaked with an African-American vibe, so in addition to all of the actors being black, this movie’s version of Oz is a funhouse-mirror version of New York, complete with subway stations and urban blight.
Ornately designed by Tony Walton, who received two Oscar nominations for his work on the picture, The Wiz is a strange hybrid of chintzy stagecraft and elaborate cinematic techniques—the costumes and sets in Oz look deliberately bogus, and the big musical numbers unfold on a proscenium facing the viewer. Therefore, notwithstanding screenwriter Joel Schumacher’s changes to the play’s dialogue, this is less an adaptation of a stage show than a filmed record of one. In a word, flat. Ross is awful on myriad levels, from being too old for the role to over-singing her endless solo ballads—star ego run amok. The supporting players generally try too hard, resulting in oppressive energy and volume, though Michael Jackson (no surprise) stands out as the loose-limbed, sweet-hearted Scarecrow. As for featured player Richard Pryor, who plays the Wiz, he comes and goes so quickly that he can’t make an impact.
Whether the music works is of course a highly subjective matter, but to my ears, only “Ease on Down the Road” (this film’s version of “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”) and the Wicked Witch’s number, “Don’t Bring Me No Bad News,” linger—most of the songs are gimmicky or syrupy, if not both. Yet the biggest problem with The Wiz—and there are lots of big problems—is that it’s not fun. The dialogue is stilted, the mood is glum, the narrative drags, and the production design is so artificial it can’t elicit any genuine reactions. If ever, oh ever, a Wiz there was, this Wiz ain’t it.
The Wiz: LAME