After decades in which producers largely abstained from adapating L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, presumably to avoid comparisons with the timeless MGM musical The Wizard of Oz (1939), the ’70s saw a handful of bold new interpretations. The most famous of these projects is the all-black musical The Wiz, which hit Broadway in 1975 before becoming a film in 1979, but a lesser-known spin on Baum’s fictional universe emerged from Down Under around the same time.
Released in Australia in 1976 and the Unites States a year later, 20th Century Oz—which was originally titled Oz: A Rock n Roll Road Movie—mostly squanders the brilliant notion of placing Dorothy Gale’s story within a modern glam-rock context. Writer-director Chris Löfvén seems to run out of creative gas at regular intervals, as if the chore of replacing Baum’s fantastical characters with real-world avatars is just too much. Additionally, it occasionally seems as if Löfvén is riffing specifically off MGM’s movie, rather than the Baum source material, so segments of the story that should be energized by musical numbers are not. That’s because, despite the subtitle the film bore during its Australian release, 20th Century Oz is not precisely a musical. It’s a drama that contains a few scenes in which characters perform music.
The other big shortcoming to Löfvén’s approach is that he failed to invent a memorable stand-in for the Wicked Witch of the West; as a result, the movie’s Dorothy spends a lot of time wandering around the Australian countryside without any real obstacles in her way, save for the elusive nature of the movie’s Wizard character. Nothing lacks momentum quite like a road movie without a narrative structure predicated on clearly defined dramatic conflict. On the plus side, the allusions to glam-rock culture work well, and some of the tunes featured in the background of the movie are memorable, even if they’re not fully integrated into the storytelling.
At the beginning of the movie, Dorothy (Joy Dunstan) is a 16-year-old groupie looking for kicks. Hopping into a van with a band that she sees perform one evening, Dorothy gets knocked unconscious during a car accident. She emerges into a dream state where the band members personify other characters, and the dream-state Dorothy decides she must attend a concert by sexualized rock star The Wizard (Graham Matters). Instead of Glinda the Good Witch, Dorothy meets a gay clothier named Glin the Good Fairy (Robin Ramsaay), who provides Dorothy with magic red shoes.
20th Century Oz is decidedly adult, with four-letter words and fleeting nudity. That aspect of the picture pays off with the film’s best image—Dorothy peels back a shower curtain to discover The Wizard without his stage makeup, thereby providing a clever riff on a moment from the MGM movie while also saying something about the artifice of glam-rock. Getting there requires slogging through a lot of drab scenes, and it’s hard to generate much rooting interest in Dunstant’s petulant characterization. That said, good luck getting the movie’s bouncy theme song, “Living in the Land of Oz,” out of your head.
20th Century Oz: FUNKY