Cult classics revisited: a critical look at ‘The Wiz’

Mounting a remake is never easy, especially when it’s of a beloved film, like the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz. The best way to interpret a familiar story is to approach the themes in a new light – Joel Schumacher adapted William F. Brown’s Broadway musical reimagining of The Wizard of Oz as an urban fantasy with music. The setting takes on Harlem-sque qualities with grittier touches like subway stations, abandoned amusement parks, and cavernous parking garages. Director Sidney Lumet assembles a sterling cast – Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Ted Ross (from the original Broadway play), Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor – and works with top notch tunesmiths such as Quincy Jones, Nicholas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, Luther Vandross, and Anthony Jackson. With talent like this, the film should’ve been a guaranteed classic – unfortunately, The Wiz works as a cautionary tale of how not to put together a remake.

The biggest problem with the film is Diana Ross. Inexplicably cast as Dorothy (taking over for a teenaged Stephanie Mills from the stage version), Ross is entirely too old for the plot. Thankfully, Schumacher doesn’t try to pass off the legendary pop diva as an adolescent, and instead Dorothy’s quickly aged from a teenager to an adult schoolteacher. But this literary slight of hand wouldn’t be fatal of Ross and Schumacher had some sort of idea of how to create an interesting character. Instead, Lumet is perfectly content to watch Ross flail as she gives a thoroughly unappealing performance – sobbing throughout the film with a twitchy edginess that shows none of the promise she displayed in Lady Sings the Blues. It’s only during her musical numbers when she predictably transcends her limited surroundings and is magical.

Somewhat resurrected since its debut in 1978 as a cult classic or a guilty pleasure, The Wiz is neither, because at its worst, it encapsulates hubris and directionless ambition. Ross, intent on getting the role of Dorothy used her considerable influence to edge out the far more appropriate Mills. While her drive is to be admired, she dominates the film with her strange performance. But despite Ross’ presence, the film has virtues that keep it from being a guilty pleasure (like Xanadu or Can’t Stop the Music). Most notably the musical numbers are fantastic – as mentioned earlier, Ross is truly magnificent when singing and dancing, and all is almost forgiven, except then she’s reading dialogue again, and the movie slips into oily schmaltz.

Perhaps sensing that Ross wouldn’t be able to shoulder the film, Lumet has assembled a top-shelf supporting cast, led by Ross’ protégé, Michael Jackson who is winning and natural as the soulful Scarecrow. Those familiar with Jackson’s virtuoso performances in his music videos won’t be surprised that he’s very comfortable in front of the camera. To be sure, he’s not taxed beyond his limited range, but Lumet makes the most of it, and alongside the crackly Ross, he’s a smooth and calming presence.

The plot stays faithful to the 1939 classic: Dorothy is taken away from her home in a storm and lands in Oz, accidentally killing a witch in the process. She gets a fabulous pair of heels (this time silver, as the original L. Frank Baum’s story had it), and follows a yellow brick road, picking up friends along the way, before having a show down with the Wicked Witch of the West (this time a sweatshop maven, reflecting the more current tone of the film), who she kills, before being whisked away back home.

Reportedly written to reflect Schumacher’s and Ross’ interest in the faddish Erhard Seminars Training movement, the script pumps lots of self-help pop psychology in the film – lots of believe in yourself and be who you are. It lurches from one set piece to another to show off just how “street” Oz can get – instead of being merely straw, the Scarecrow is stuffed with garbage and as opposed to being rusted into stillness in a forest, the Tin Man is a robot in a ghost fun fair. There are analogies to prostitution, to drug addiction, and to homelessness. Urban blight represents the oppressive hold the witch has on Oz (similar to the post-apocalyptic Oz featured in the 1985 semi-sequel Return to Oz), and audiences are meant to nod with subtle amusement at how contemporary parts of Oz can translate.

Another reason why The Wiz escapes camp is the sheer workmanship that is evident in the film’s lavish production – it’s a very handsome film at times and even though it looked like the filmmakers were more interesting in putting together a visually impressive film to an emotionally resonant one, there is a craft that is admirable. The film cost a reported $24 million – an unheard of amount of money for the late 1970s, all the more notable because it featured an all-black cast.

While the music of The Wizard of Oz shows a background of showboaty Broadway, The Wiz despite its theater roots has its musical DNA mapped in disco music and soul. But this is disco at its best – spirited and full of fire and spirit. If judged on the music alone, it stands proudly alongside the MGM classic. Ross and Jackson have a great musical chemistry and it feels inevitable that the two performances work so well together – their voices blend startlingly well, and though Jackson is a far better dancer, Ross acquits herself quite nicely. “Ease on Down the Road” is a funky take on “We’re Off to See the Wizard” and the actors sing the travel song with the spiky, canny fire that would seem quite at ease in Studio 54. And Lumet’s then-mother-in-law Lena Horne gets a big fat belter of a number “Believe in Yourself,” which she shouts out in an uncharacteristically passionate voice (her gospel-inflected singing on the tune is miles away from her more-mannered supper club crooning).

And when the Wicked Witch of the West is vanquished, her slaves are liberated and proceed to Alvin Ailey the hell out of the choreography on “Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day” a rousing number that Vandross contributed. Ross and Jackson join, keeping up with the beautiful, nubile and muscular bodies who shed their thick, sexless costumes to reveal gorgeous, bronzed bodies. But even in this wonderful sequence, Ross can’t help herself, and in between the fancy footwork she indulges in some diva posting, thrusting her hands in the air and flashing her billion-watt smile.

I wish I liked The Wiz more, though. I wish the script supported the excellent songs and the committed musical performances of the performers. I also wish that the injection of urban wit translated more easily onto film. Stage musicals often have a hard go of it on celluloid, and in that respect, The Wiz manages okay (better than Thoroughly Modern Millie or Mame), but Schumacher, Lumet, and Ross let their imaginations and self-regard get the better of themselves, and instead of pruning some of the goofier ideas when putting this story onto film, they instead not only indulged in these bad eccentricities, but they amplified them. And in the end, what their collective imaginations and considerable talents produced with a jerky, fitful film that veered from the ridiculous to the bizarre, from the sublime to the mediocre.

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