Wiz, The



Main Cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson

Director: Sidney Lumet

Things have deteriorated somewhat at Chateau Maine during our little jaunt to the east coast.  I left strict instructions with Joseph, my manager, and Madame Rose, my publicist, as to what to do to keep Star is Born pictures and MNM retail enterprises running smoothly but they seem to have taken my time away as some sort of excuse to make free reign with the house and some sort of continuous wild Hollywood bacchanal was going on behind my back.  I found some sort of bottle blond named Queenie holding court in the third spare bedroom and LAPD had to be called to remove her and her entourage.  Needless to say, I am very cross with my employees and may need to go into hiring mode to find some suitable replacements.  In the meantime, they have been sent home and I am replacing them with Kelly Services.  The most immediate problem is that my exclusive contract with Pic N Save, home of MNM’s fine line of consumer products, was allowed to lapse and their executives have replaced me with a new brand of women’s wear and beauty products fronted by Lindsay Lohan.  Apparently she tested better with their last focus groups.

Kelly Girls PD

Wait! These are not the Kelly Girls I ordered!

Over on the production side of the house, my Spielberg musical is still stuck in development hell.  I called dear Steven to ask him what the latest was but he seems to have changed his cell number.  In the meantime, I have to find an outlet for my wonderful artistic gifts.  Fortunately a number of potential proposals had come in so I called Madame Mimi, my vocal coach, and Lulu Pigg, my tap therapist, come on over and we’d have a little script synopsis reading party.  Mimi brought her new assistant Jennifer and I had no trouble amazing her with my amazing coloratura trills as I demonstrated my vocal prowess with a series of art songs based on the color names of paint chips that Normy had dashed off for me.

The pickings in the proposal pile were fairly slim.  There was a request for me to have a cameo in the next Hunger Games film as President Snow’s modern dance teacher, a pilot for a new series based on the Eragon novels in which I would voice one of the dragons (but it had no musical numbers that I could discern), and a workshop for a new musical version of the Borgias, but has they had me down for Catherine of Aragon rather than Lucrezia and there was no dream ballet so I am going to have to pass.  We were feeling puckish so I called Danny down at the local café to send up some desserts and his loyal gal Friday, Leah, showed up with them a bit later.  On seeing what we were doing, she suggested we should do something called The Dessert Song.  We all had a giggle on that.

I said goodbye to the girls and retired upstairs to the bedroom where I looked for a film that would put me back in a decent frame of mind.  The recent trip to NYC was such a success that I decided to put on that most New York of all movies, Sidney Lumet’s 1978 film version of the Broadway musical, The Wiz with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.  The Wiz is based on the Broadway show of the same name that came out of nowhere in 1974 to become a sleeper hit, running for several years and winning the Tony for Best Musical for that season.  The mid 70s were a cultural high point for African Americans in this country with authentic voices and stories finally being given their due in the media and original stage director Geoffrey Holder (who also designed the costumes and who was an incredible renaissance talent, unfortunately best known to the American public for his 7-up commercials where he touted the uncola in his marvelous West Indian accent) shaped Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown’s retelling of The Wizard of Oz into a colorful celebration of the African American experience.  He was helped by a couple of teenage dynamos, Stephanie Mills as Dorothy and Hinton Battle as the scarecrow who had audiences dancing in the aisles to a Motown beat.

When it came time to make the film, Hollywood, being Hollywood, did not put the project into the hands of African American filmmakers who might understand the material or bring it some authenticity, rather they had two of the whitest guys they could find write and direct the movie adaptation.  Joel Schumacher, who 20 years later was to destroy the Batman franchise wrote the screen play while Sidney Lumet directed.  (Lumet at least had some family connection, being married at the time to Lena Horne’s daughter).  They then critically miscast the central role of Dorothy, a role that depends on a very young actress who can project innocence and naiveté and gave it to Diana Ross who was then in her mid-thirties and whom had been a huge celebrity for a decade and a half.

The Wiz is a New York City fantasia on L. Frank Baum’s original children’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which has delighted readers of all ages for well over a century and is safely out of copyright.  Dorothy is in the midst of a large holiday family gathering somewhere in Harlem (an excuse for her Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) to deliver a rousing paean to hearth and home as an opening number).  Soon Dorothy is caught up in some sort of snow tornado and blown downtown to lower Manhattan where everything is new, strange and cartoonish.  First munchkins emerge from playground graffiti and do a production number with Thelma Carpenter, then Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson before he turned himself into a white person of indeterminate gender) and together they ease on down the yellow brick road picking up the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) at some sort of landlocked Coney Island and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross repeating his stage role) outside of the New York Public Library.

Eventually we arrive at the Emerald City which looks a bit like the roller disco in Thank God It’s Friday, only with Richard Pryor as the Wiz in charge.  Then it’s off to kill the wicked Evilene (Mabel King – also a holdover from the Broadway cast) and free her slaves who transform into Cirque de Soleil.  Eventually everything comes out all right and Dorothy returns to Harlem and family with the aid of Lena Horne wailing her way through If You Believe.

There’s much to enjoy in this film, starting with the performances.  Everyone brings so much energy that I suspect there might have been a little too much Bolivian marching powder circulating backstage.  Miss Ross is wrong for the part but sings the heck out of the score.  Ted Ross, as the Lion, steals every scene he’s in and Michael Jackson is energetic and adorable and we can see the overabundance of talent that would eventually be frittered away in poor life decisions.  The weak link is Nipsey Russell who simply cannot bring himself up to the level of his costars.  The four older women playing the various witches and Aunt Em all make the most of their one number apiece and leave us wanting more.  The real star, however, is Tony Walton’s amazing production and costume design, creating a dreamscape of Manhattan using familiar architectural elements such as the Chrysler building in unique ways to give us a sense of both the common place and the fantastical.

What ultimately kills the movie is Lumet’s turgid direction.  Sequence after sequence gets bogged down in overlong moments and what moves swiftly on stage turns into a bloated bore.  A murderous subway station, in particular, standing in for the Kalidah attack, goes on endlessly and we’re almost hoping a couple characters will die if it gets us out of their even a few minutes sooner.  Large scale dance numbers that should leave us with a feeling of joy get waterlogged by an overly static camera and what seems to be a lack of trust in the strength of the material so too much is piled on and things collapse under the weight.

If you have never seen the film, you could do worse.  However, I would recommend instead buying tickets to a well-produced version of the stage show with a young and energetic cast.

Surfeit of relatives.  Runaway dog.  Gratuitous killer garbage cans.  Roller coaster slides.  Green Grand Central.  Exploding lion statue.  Singing stars.  Useless taxis.

To learn more about Mrs. Norman Maine, see our Movie Rewind introduction, visit her entire back catalog and follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/missvickilester

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  • Vicki Lester

    March 10, 2017 at 9:58 am

    Where would we be without our guilty pleasures? I have several inferior films that I watch over and over again. I plead the fifth on their names. Kisses, MNM

  • Paul Lundy

    March 7, 2017 at 5:20 am

    Good review, thanks! I've recently rediscovered it, & it's become a guilty pleasure.

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