When a blizzard hits Harlem, Dorothy, a shy schoolteacher and her dog Toto suddenly find themselves in a strange land. With the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion, she travels to the Emerald City to find ‘The Wiz’ in order to get back home.
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“I never killed nothin’ in my life!”
Panned by critics and failing at the box office in 1978, The Wiz later went on to become a cult classic with impressive costumes and stunning visuals. Based on the Broadway musical, the film uses most of the same songs to tell the story of The Wizard of Oz; re-imagined with an all African-American cast.
It’s winter in Harlem as a huge storm approaches. Dorothy (Diana Ross), a timid school teacher is hiding in the kitchen as her family celebrates Thanksgiving. Anxious and scared, she is told by her aunt “Girl, do you know that you're 24 years old, and you've never been south of 125th Street?” As she contemplates this reality, Dorothy’s dog Toto runs outside and she runs after him – and into the storm. The rest is a story almost everyone knows. Into the Land of Oz she goes, embarking on a journey that will take her back home.
One of the few changes made to the film was the casting of Dorothy (Diana Ross) who is originally a very young girl. Ross, who campaigned to be cast as Dorothy was 33 when shooting, so instead of a young girl, plays a 24 year-old schoolteacher. Unfortunately, this casting change hinders the film as Ross’ acting never fully convinces the audience to fall in love with Dorothy. It’s only in her interactions with the Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion she shines as a character the audience can root for. Michael Jackson’s portrayal of Scarecrow is sweet, charming and entertaining. His spindly legs, wide-eyed awe and soulful singing bring heart to the character. The Tinman (Nipsey Russell) and Lion (Ted Ross, reprising his Broadway role) also bring energy to their characters, showcasing both performers’ singing and dancing skills.
While the acting falters throughout the film, the costumes and sets consistently excel. Nominated for Oscars in set design, art direction and costumes, the film exhibits stunning set pieces and a visual re-imagining of classic characters. New York City becomes the Land of Oz, with the yellow brick road snaking its way across the Brooklyn Bridge, and around the Manhattan skyline. The World Trade Center becomes the Emerald City lit from underneath in green, red and gold lights. Gritty New York streets come to life, as graffiti pops off walls and become three-dimensional. Hookers, puppets on motorcycles and a sweatshop all bring a bizarre, darker tone to the film.
The costumes, created by Tony Walton and Miles White are whimsical, colourful and interesting. The Scarecrow, despite his lack of a brain, is literally stuffed with quotes from great philosophers. The Lion, cowering and hiding, wears a topcoat of fur that is elegant enough for royalty. Evillene, the wicked witch of the west, wears a gaudy, garish red dress encrusted with jewels. Glinda, bathed in diamonds, literally lights up the sky.
The songs in the film are mostly all taken from the Broadway musical with the exception of a few such as the Scarecrow’s first song, You Can’t Win which was sung by Jackson for the film. Although displaying the singing talents of all the performers, the songs are not entirely memorable. One of the reasons may be that the film is over-saturated with songs that sometimes go on for far too long and back to back, halting the flow of the story. And unlike most film musicals, Director Sidney Lumet keeps most of the camera shots static while the flurry of the dance-and-song happens quite a distance away. Catchy and upbeat, however are the songs You Can’t Win and the main theme song, Ease on Down the Road sung every time Dorothy meets a new friend. And of course, particularly important is the liberation song, Brand New Day, sung after the defeat of the Wicked Witch. The number represents Dorothy’s liberation as well as addressing some issues close to the African-American community. It is filled with elaborate choreography, colour and a celebratory energy that is entirely entertaining.
The Wiz is a film musical that contains a number of misfires, but also displays singing, dancing and visuals that are quite impressive. It is a fun re-telling of a classic story through a protagonist and characters that represent a particular community. Using Dorothy’s journey, the film aims to discuss issues of oppression, friendship, loyalty, risk-taking and self-confidence. Through a bizarre romp across an alternative New York City, Dorothy finds herself, and hopefully the ability to finally go south of 125th street.This film won Best Director and Best Cinematography, and was nominated for five other categories. The screenwriter was nominated, and rightly so. Taken from a short story that first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in 1933 by Maurice Walsh, Green Rushes, Frank Nugent was able to weave a story rich in subtext and conflict.
The collector’s edition of the DVD includes an interview with Maureen O’Hara where she reminisces about filming The Quiet Man, and is well worth watching.