The Wiz

Dir: Sidney Lumet. 1978. Starring: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Mabel King, Nipsey Russell. English. Musicals/Black Cinema
The Wiz

The Wiz has one of the worst reputations in film history. It was a commercial and critical flop and is said to have ended not only Diana Ross' film career but Hollywood's investment in musicals and the era of black-centric movies that had recently evolved from blaxploitation to character driven drama and comedy. Made in 1978, it is the film version of the staged musical that took Broadway and the Tony's by storm in 1975. The staged production starred a teenage Stephanie Mills (who would later become an R&B sensation) who was also signed to play Dorothy in the film version. That role went to Diana Ross who critics, and even some involved with the production, felt was too old for the part. She was supported by an outstanding cast including a young and vibrant Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow and Ted Ross reprising his Tony award winning roll as the Cowardly Lion. Unfortunately, Joel Schumacher wrote a flimsy script using very little of the play's libretto and instead infused it with “feel good” jargon from motivational guru Werner Erhard including the song “Believe in Yourself.” The critics nailed the film and Ross' performance with brutal accuracy but also gave high praise to its practical production including costumes, choreography, and cinematography. In fact, it was nominated for 4 Oscars but failed to win any. As a child I was mesmerized by this film. Dorothy did seem too old in the beginning but as she began dancing down the yellow brick road her joy and beauty emerged until I thought she herself was magical. I remember rejoicing in the new “modern” versions of the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion. They felt so tangible and textured - more so than The Wizard of Oz of 1939. The Munchkins were kids, like me! And the people of Emerald City were extravagantly beautiful. I remember being frightened and on the edge of my seat during Evilline's big number and Dorothy's confrontation. I knew hell when I saw it and as the Winkies freed themselves after Evilline's demise it was like watching angels being born. Now those impressions were all in my memory and I was a little reluctant to return knowing the film's tainted history as an adult. Happily my impressions now still have some wonder and delight for this whimsical and mythical film. Ross gives a nervous and overly dramatic performance for a G rated movie but her natural gifts of song and beauty still win me over. Her companions and their numbers are treasures of movie musical history and Mabel King as Evilline remains joyfully bad while the freed Winkies are still beautifully jubilant. The simply magnificent costumes by Tony Walton - from Jackson's incredibly believable Scarecrow silhouette to the 1300 plus costume parade in Emerald City - deserve a retrograde Oscar for pure brilliance. Evilline is especially memorable in design and dramatic function. The make-up by Stan Winston compliments the art and costume design in every way and should be considered special effects. The set is a New York in an Oz universe and shines in moments of true imagination. The score is uneven due to new songs written for the film which really denies the true dramatic arc of the story but "Ease on Down" the road remains one of the best songs ever written for stage or screen and you will find more than a few authentic jewels overlooked during its release but revived later by savvy soul artists. There is enough genius in The Wiz to make its flaws endearing and it deserves recognition as a valid and innovating film in cinematic and musical history. It's certainly been validated in mine. _________________The Wiz was nominated for 4 Oscars:  Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Song Score and Its Adaptation.  

Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Feb 11, 2008 3:30pm
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