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The Wiz (1978)
Ease On Down The Road Live by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writers: L. Frank Baum, William F. Brown, Joel Schumacher
Cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Theresa Merritt, Mabel King, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Stanley Greene, Clyde J. Barrett
Synopsis: An adaption of "The Wizard of Oz" that tries to capture the essence of the African American experience.
MPAA Rating: G
Note: In honor of the recently released "Oz: The Great and Powerful", the upcoming "Dorothy of Oz", and the currently in development remake of "The Wizard of Oz", I've taken it upon myself to review every film adaptation ever conceived based on the literary books based on Oz; with the notable exceptions of TV shows and mini-series because there's simply too much of it.
Nostalgia Critic's Review of "The Wiz" (Warning: Contains Spoilers and Adult Language. Parental Discretion is Advised)
"The Wizard of Oz" with a 70's Urban African American style twist?
Who needs a great and powerful wizard when you can have the wiz? Back in 1973, there was a Broadway play called "The Wiz" that was sort of a remake of L. Frank Baum's classic story, "The Wizard of Oz." However, the twist was that it featured an all black cast, and it featured songs that were designed to appeal to urban ethnic groups, at the time period.
According to most sources, the play still followed Baum's story fairly well, as Dorothy was still a little girl, and she was still from Kansas. Anyways, the show was a huge success on Broadway with both audiences and critics, so Motown Records bought the film rights to "The Wiz." However, instead of following the play's layout of basically doing a remake of "The Wizard of Oz" with a urban twist, Sidney Lumet and Joel Schumacher took things a bit further.
Not only was the story altered with an urban twist to it, but they changed it to where Dorothy was now a bit older. She now lives in New York, and Oz becomes more of a post apocalyptic schizo version of New York City. Needless to say, the film bombed at the time, and it was met with mixed reviews.
But does that mean this film isn't any good then? After all, the original 1939 film didn't do that well either in theaters initially, but it still managed to become a classic over time. Although one would hardly call "The Wiz" a classic movie, but it's been proven that just because a film bombs during it's theatrical release doesn't make it a bad movie per say. Therefore, lets take a look at "The Wiz."
As I explained earlier, the film basically follows the same story structure as the original, with the novelty of an all black cast; along with a urban schizo version of Oz. The songs are said to be different than the play it was spawned from, as it features a combination of various musical numbers derived from popular music genres, at the time, such as disco, blues, and a bit of pop for example.
Although it was rather clever to choose songs derived from these popular genres, in an attempt to appeal to young audiences back then, but it also makes the entire movie kind of dated as well. Unlike the "The Wiz", the 1939 film featured more contemporary musical numbers to it's story; which helps make the movie timeless. Granted, some songs in "The Wiz" are nice to listen to like "Ease on Down the Road" for instance, but it lacks that timeless feel that one would get from listening to the song, "Over the Rainbow", sang by Judy Garland, for example.
As for the choice of making Oz more of a schizo post apocalyptic version of New York, I have to say that I'm fairly impressed by it. Although some film critics have complained about the settings of this movie, but I beg to differ. Granted, "The Wiz" doesn't follow the play exactly, nor have I ever seen the play to be honest..
But from what I read about it, the play itself sounds like a gimmick to make money off the brand recognition of "The Wizard of Oz"; while using the novelty of an all black cast. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the play is great, and I'm sure I'd probably love it too if I ever had the honor of seeing it.
However, lets be honest with ourselves for a minute. Most people that go into a movie theater to watch "The Wiz" aren't going to know this film was based on a freaking play to begin with. Hell, most people don't even know about the other "Oz" films outside of the 1939 version of it, as I've met thousands of people that even told me they didn't know any other "Oz" film existed besides the one featuring Judy Garland.
Therefore, it's safe to assume that a fair amount of the audience will not be aware of the fact that this is supposed to be an adaptation of a play, to begin with. Plus if any of the audiences back in 1978 were like me, then I can already guarantee you that some of them would probably call the whole film a damn gimmick to begin with; even if they had made it a faithful adaptation from the play itself.
Therefore, I applaud both Joel Schumacher and Sidney Lumet for at least trying to put something different in this adaptation. Granted, it may not be popular among most viewers, but it's very original in a sense that you can at least see that they were trying to create a fantasy musical adventure that could be aesthetically different than any other "Oz" film ever conceived. On that note alone, "The Wiz" succeeds. Granted, you don't have to like the film per say, but you can at least appreciate it for trying to bring something different for audiences.
However, the thing that really kills this movie more so than the outdated music is it's cheap ending to it's antagonist. I won't spoil it for readers that haven't seen the movie, but the way it's written and set up is ridiculously too convenient for our protagonists; which makes the whole film come off as sillier than it was initially intended to be. Plus, what was the deal with Glinda having babies pinned up to a wall? I'm sure it was probably used for some metaphorical reason, but I'll be damned if I know what it is.
As for the moral of the story, I know many film critics have bashed this movie for failing to even get the moral of the original story right. But to be fair, I don't think this film was trying to recapture the same morals or themes of the original "Wizard of Oz." If anything, it seems like "The Wiz" was trying to portray it's own message, while using the same basic story that audiences were already familiar with. In a sense, it reminds me of how the remake of "Clash of the Titans" tries to carry it's own morals and themes; while still retelling the same basic story of the original. Granted, you don't have to agree with it, but in a sense, the moral that "The Wiz" tries to convey does work for the story quite well.
As for the wide angled shots throughout the film, it's impressive whenever we see our protagonists enter places like the Emerald City. But for other scenes like when Dorothy and the scarecrow find the yellow brick road, it just seems rather lazy to say the least; almost as if the cinematographer didn't want to move the camera closer to the actors. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure Sidney Lumet probably wanted to show off most of the sets throughout the film, but when it comes to performances like the "Ease on Down the Road" duet by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, it just seems kind of pointless to have the camera to focus on their backs the whole time.
I mean lets look at this for a minute objectively here. At the time, Diana Ross was a huge music star, and Michael Jackson was a rising star, so wouldn't it had made more sense for the camera to do more of a close up of them doing a duet together in "The Wiz?" Don't get me wrong, it's still arguably one of the best musical numbers in the film, but it could've been a lot better had the camera work had been better in that particular scene.
Overall though, I don't think "The Wiz" was a bad movie to be honest, but it's certainly not a great one either. On the one hand, I can applaud Sidney Lumet and Joel Schumacher for trying to put something together that would be aesthetically different, while trying to tell their own morals and themes using the same story. But on the other hand, the songs are dated, and the ending was a bit weak to say the least. In the end, I'd have to give "The Wiz" a two and a half out of four.