The Wiz

Truly APPALLING in every respect
★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1978
Director: 
Sidney Lumet
Starring: 
Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross
The Setup: 
Adaptation of the 70s hit Broadway play brought kicking and screaming into the 80s, swapping Stephanie Mills for Diana Ross, and generally providing an African-American take on The Wizard of Oz.
Discussion: 

Let me establish a few things at the start: 1) I love disco, soul, and R&B, 2) I love the '70s, 3) I love bad movies, and 4) I have a healthy admiration for Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, as well as many of the other luminaries in this film.

All that said, this film is APPALLING IN EVERY RESPECT!

I knew this movie was poorly regarded, and I expected to like it anyway (I'm certainly not sorry I've seen it) but the ratio of potential to realization is like 100:1. I'm really surprised it has so many defenders. Let's discuss the untold number of things that went wrong:

It has oft been observed that Diana Ross is too old for this role. What's not mentioned is the fact that she looks TERRIBLE! She looks like a refugee! It wouldn’t be so bad if she didn’t have this scrunched-up, about to cry, Renee Zelleweger-face on the whole time, but alas. Also, she just has the WRONG voice for this part. Stephanie Mills had a strange, nasal voice, but she was a BELTER, and you need a belter for these songs. Poor Diana and her thin voice just can’t cut it, and she has no physical charm to fall back on. Oh dear.

I was really surprised how lame the musical renditions and sound quality were. I have surround sound, and I just couldn't believe how muffled and distant the sound was. And, in my opinion, ALL of the musical performances were misfires. You could see how many of the songs could have been excellent a good performance, but those just weren't to be found here. [BTW, since then I have bought the original cast album, and was ASTONISHED at how BRILLIANT the songs and their performances were. Upon listening to that, it is all the more incredible that these songs could have been screwed up as badly as they are here. And by QUINCY JONES, no less!]

Many people single out Lena Horne's performance as fantastic, but to me, like the rest of the movie, she was BADLY misused. Lena Horne is a nuanced jazz singer, so to hear her try to go all low-down gospel was rather painful, especially with her impeccably-enunciated "Woo! Yeah!"'s. She also looks utterly ridiculous. Dee Dee Bridgewater on the original cast album handles the song with grace and panache.

I didn't get much of a sense of the old pre-horrorshow Michael Jackson we all used to love between the layers of makeup and the lack of focus of the movie and scenes.

I love how Dorothy alternates between being hysterical that Toto is out of her sight for even a moment because he is so precious to her, and then completely forgetting about his existence for extended periods of time.

Also, apparently the scarecrow's owner shredded the works of the great philosophers (or at least his copy of Bartlett's Famous Quotations) to stuff his scarecrow with? Every time Michael dips into his stuffing to pull out a quote it’s one for the ages. This gets tiresome on the second of 3,264 repetitions.

And WHAT is happening in the sequence where the subway comes to life and attacks our heroes? WHAT is that? Also, the cowardly lion doesn't get much of a character arc, does he? One scene he's going on about how he doesn't have any courage, the next he's ferociously defending Michael against the saber-toothed garbage cans.

Now think about that: saber-toothed garbage cans.

I understand that during this movie our quartet go through tableaus of the issues affecting blacks in the 70's, fine... so then what's with the emerald city scene where the Wiz dictates fashion to the people below? Am I to understand that one of the major cultural issues facing African-Americans in the 70's was the tyranny of imperious fashion designers? Is that one of those “let’s bring it into the 80s, where imperious fashion designers menace African–Americans” moments? It’s inexplicable.

I was surprised that of all the things they kept from the original Wizard of Oz film, they jettisoned the device that Dorothy is just dreaming about all the people she knows, and at the end there's no "And you were there, and you were there, and you were there" scene. Which of course everyone LOVES.

I was kind of stupefied by how HUGE some of the sets were. Many looked like actual NYC locations that they had just laid a yellow-brick floor on. I would love to know if they actually did that, or just built these enormous sets. [I think I read somewhere that they did this, having struck some kind of deal (now all too common in NYC) with the city because it would revitalize or pump money into the economy or some such crap.]

Well, that's it! This film is not a total waste of 2 hours, but it is... quite an oddity.

Should you watch it: 

Probably not.