The Wiz

The Wiz is a great musical but a terrible movie

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Oct 24, 2018, 6:01 PM EDT

L. Frank Baum's series of Oz novels are an undeniable landmark of 20th-century pop culture. Their cultural, political, and historical influence on literature, film, academia, and far more has been the stuff of near legend in the century since his passing. The 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz remains the most famous book of the series, in part because it's the one that is adapted so much. The much-beloved MGM movie of 1939, starring Judy Garland, has long cemented its reputation as one of the greatest films ever made. Gregory Maguire’s adult-focused prequel to the story recontextualized its wicked witch as a misunderstood antihero and later became one of Broadway’s biggest musical successes, Wicked. Disney even tried their hand at the Oz game with Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful, with mixed results.

The story of Dorothy and her journey to a magical land has proven fertile ground for storytellers wishing to tell their own tales of discovery, growing up, and finding out there's no place like home. In 1974, Broadway saw a new take on Oz that melded the classic tale with modern African-American culture, and the result was one of the most sinfully underrated Broadway shows of all time. But you may remember it more as a movie that, for lack of a politer term, failed spectacularly as an Oz story. The Wiz was the brainchild of musician Charlie Smalls and playwright William F. Brown, with additional help from figures like Luther Vandross. Their dream was to take the iconic story of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz — both the book and the MGM movie — and interpret it through a proudly black lens.

The show itself is actually remarkably faithful to the original story in terms of structure. Where it exceeds on its own terms is in style and character. Taken as a universal story of a little girl finding her way back home, it's something everyone can enjoy, but its meaning strikes home much deeper when understood as a story about a lonely young black girl who finds a way to believe in herself and embrace the culture around her. It's a contemporary re-imagining that feels timeless and one that wholeheartedly loves its own message. With a score as good as this one has, it’s no wonder the show found an audience quickly and ran for four years on Broadway. It went on to sweep the Tony Awards with seven wins, including Best Musical.

In the 1970s, black cinema was emerging as an undeniable force in American film. Figures like Melvin Van Peebles, Bill Gunn, and Gordon Parks were moving into the mainstream and films like Shaft, Superfly, and Ganja & Hess were finding not only critical acclaim but true commercial success. The icons of Motown Records had also moved into cinema, producing films for their biggest stars, like Diana Ross. She made her movie debut playing Billie Holiday in the biopic Lady Sings the Blues, released by Motown Productions (which landed her an Oscar nomination) and would follow that up with the now cult favorite Mahogany. Ross was an undeniable star and one who had major sway at both Motown and Universal Pictures. So, even though at 33 she was too old for the part of Dorothy, and even though Motown boss Berry Gordy didn’t want her in the part, she got it by going straight to the studio and arranging a deal with executive producer Rob Cohen.

That choice didn't go over well with director John Badham of Saturday Night Fever fame, and he soon dropped out. He was replaced by Sidney Lumet, one of the undeniable geniuses of Hollywood, who was nonetheless all sorts of wrong to direct The Wiz. Going from Network to Equus to The Wiz may be one of the weirdest career trajectories in Hollywood, although not as weird as the film's screenwriter, a certain Mr. Joel Schumacher. That's right, the guy who put nipples on the Batsuit wrote The Wiz. Somehow, after establishing himself as a costume designer for directors like Woody Allen, Schumacher became a screenwriter on films that primarily appealed to black audiences, such as Sparkle and Car Wash. The combination of Lumet and Schumacher didn’t seem like a natural fit for an all-black retelling of The Wizard of Oz. And it wasn’t. Not in the slightest.

The Wiz is an odd film. It’s one of the only major studio big-budget films of that era with an all-black cast, but its sensibility is so often clearly that of two white dudes. The story is changed to explain why Dorothy is suddenly in her 30s, and the new Oz is inspired more by Manhattan than anything from fantasy. The scale is lavish, and the film is chock-full of incredible sets and costumes, but everything is shot so lifelessly that the viewing experience becomes a complete drag. Songs like Ease on Down the Road, which are pure fire on stage, are filmed as if Lumet just popped a camera in front of his actors and left the set. Attempts to draw parallels between Oz and Dorothy’s world veer between interesting (the flying monkeys become a motorcycle gang) to inexplicable (the Wicked Witch runs a sweatshop?!)

The cast is a veritable murderers’ row of talent: Lena Horne! Richard Pryor! Michael Jackson! There are actors of immense charisma who know exactly what to do — Mabel King’s performance as Evillene the Witch is still magnetic — but then there’s Diana Ross, a woman who has given great on-screen performances but is utterly drowning in a role she had no business doing in the first place. She plays Dorothy like the child she is supposed to be, but it just seems odd coming from a 33-year-old woman. Half the time, it seems like she doesn’t want to be making the movie, which is strange given her repeated passions for the project. Mostly, she’s awkward, which feels like a good summary of the entire movie. The Wiz shines when the music plays, but so much of it is the exemplification of what happens when white-dominated Hollywood thinks it knows what blackness looks and feels like.

The Wiz remains a favorite with many fans, although it was initially a flop upon release, failing to recoup its $24 million budget (adjusted for inflation, that’s over $92 million). For lovers of the musical, it stands as a folly to misguided Hollywood dreams and that strange period where the industry tried to make musicals again. The film still left a big impact. It's the project where Quincy Jones met Michael Jackson, who played the Scarecrow, and the two went on to make three of the best albums of the 1980s. For many kids, especially in America, this remains their version of Oz.

But the power of The Wiz remains with the musical, which finally got the adaptation it deserved when NBC produced a live television spectacular in 2015. The cast was even more impressive than the movie's, with appearances from Common, Amber Riley, Uzo Aduba, Mary J. Blige, and Queen Latifah. What made it so special was how it combined the vibrant visuals with a real sense of theatricality. It’s a musical put together by people who both love and understand musicals, which makes all the difference.

The influence of The Wiz looms large over musicals, and for a generation of black kids, that film holds a special place in their hearts. Under the harshness of hindsight, it doesn’t hold up in the slightest, but what is nostalgia if not the ultimate return to what feels like home?

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