Thursday, February 13, 2014

Film Friday: The Wiz (1978)

I love the Wizard of Oz, and I often enjoy the remakes. I love blaxploitation films too. And I enjoy musicals a lot. So The Wiz sounds perfect. Heck, how can you go wrong with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Quincy Jones, and Richard Pryor? Well, you can. The Wiz sucks and I marvel that somewhere along the way someone didn’t say, “Wow, we need to change this.”
The Plot
Diana Ross is having a midlife crisis, so she goes outside into the snowy streets of New York after a family dinner. A freak ice-tornado picks her up and dumps her in Oz. In the process of landing, she kills a witch – Evermean. This frees the kids (Munchkins) who Evermean turned into graffiti as punishment for graffiting. They celebrate Evermean’s death and Ross meets Miss One, a good witch and a numbers runner who tells her to follow the yellow brick road and to never take off her silver slippers.
After Ross fails to hail a cab, she finds herself outside a tenement building, where a group of crows are eating corn and hassling a Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) who is stuck on a pole. Ross chases away the crows and helps the Scarecrow to his feet. They dance and move on down the yellow brick road.

Next, they pick up the Tin Man (Nipsy Russell) at an amusement park and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) in front of the New York Public Library. Then they go to the Emerald City, where they see a bunch of sycophants and hookers and finally meet the Wiz (Richard Pryor), who tells them to kill Evillene (Mabel King) if they want their wishes granted. Evillene runs a sweatshop in the sewers of New York and she controls the Flying Monkeys, a motorcycle gang of stinking apes. Ross assassinates Evillene and they return to the Wiz, where they learn he is a fake. Ross then returns home by clicking her heels together.
What Went Wrong... And Wrong... And Wrong
The critics hated The Wiz and audience stayed way from it; it cost $24 million to make and took in only $13 million. And you know what? They were right. This thing is a turd on so many levels. Everything went wrong with this production.

The Songs: A musical lives or dies by its songs, so let’s start with the songs. Put simply, the songs are crap. There are basically two decent songs. One is Michael Jackson singing “Ease on Down the Road,” and one is Mabel King singing “No Bad News.” Both songs are original to the musical, but they do feel like they could have been more than that. Neither is particularly strong, but both are adequate.
The rest of the songs, however, are a total waste. They have basic lyrics with obvious rhyme schemes and no cleverness at all. Neither the music nor the lyrics will surprise you in any way. None of them are memorable and there no moments of little joy of the type that make a song touch your emotions. You can’t even sing along.

Even worse, the lyrics are primitive. In fact, most of these songs are transactional in nature in the sense that they simply convey information to the audience in the most simplistic manner. If a character is evil, they sing, “I’m so bad.” If a character is sad, they sing, “I’m so sad.” When you meet the cowardly lion, he sings, “You better run and hide, I’m a mean old lion.” Yawn. Compare that to the imagery of “Build Me Up Buttercup” or “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Or think of how “Riding Along In My Automobile” takes simple seeming lyrics and steps those up to paint a strong picture that brings you a climax. Now compare that to how the lion’s song continues as Ross encourages him to be brave:
Keep on tryin’ and tryin’ and tryin’
You’re a lion.
Keep tryin’
I’m a lion.
In my own way, I’m a lion.
Nothing. No cleverness. No double meanings or turns of phrases. No imagery you can grab onto. No build up. No payoff. And the few times the lyrics try to be clever, they are jarring and unpleasant. Here is a woman singing how she wears red instead of green because red is the “in” color and green isn’t:
I wouldn’t be caught dead [waaaaay overly-long pause]
And if I’m caught at all [second long pause], then catch me in dead red.
Apart from the two songs mentioned, you won’t remember a single line from the film.
The Choreography: In addition to singing, musicals often include dance numbers which are equally important. Director Sydney Lumet (12 Angry Men) really drops the ball here. For one thing, he repeats imagery. The three “big” numbers each involve him pulling the camera back so you can see about 150 feet across. Then he films as a large number of dancers, all standing equidistant, slowly move in a large circle as if they were a record on a record player. Three times you’ll see this same image repeated.

Further, there is almost no contact during the dancing. The extras essentially spin in place or do generic dance moves without touching each other except for the occasional moment where they touch and separate again. The main characters touch more often, but there’s no togetherness in this. Everyone is basically doing their own independent thing side by side, and that gives the movie a very cold, sterile, distant feeling.

Really, the only exception is Michael Jackson, who does his best to breathe life into the other actors, but they lose whatever life he gives them the moment he separates from them.

The Script: The script is horribly weak. Your first clue to this is that each scene involves the actors gathering together center stage and standing around trying to look busy as all the necessary lines are delivered. What this tells you is that the characters lack motivation, i.e. they are dialog-delivery vehicles and nothing more. And that’s just the beginning of the problems with the writing.
There is little verbal interaction. Essentially the characters read lines at each other rather than communicate, which prevents any sense of relationship. Again, there are no double meanings, no hidden depth, and no verbal cleverness. The word choice is awkward as well. The dialog is a strange mix that feels like an educated white liberal with a thesaurus vocabulary wrote the dialog to appeal to others at his level, but then included the occasional black slang he had seen in other blaxploitation films. The result is characters who sound like accountants and lawyers talking shop, but who will suddenly whip out a very uncomfortable “ghetto” phrase. It feels condescending.

Further, the story itself is weak. Yes, the story is a remake of The Wizard of Oz, but what’s missing here are the motivations. Why does anyone in this film act the way they do? The script offers little more than the characters changing locations, reading a few lines, and then standing there long enough for the current problem to suddenly solve itself. Nothing in this film feels connected. The result is a weak plot, zero character development, and no relationships get built... and you end up not caring about any of them.

One reason this may be the case is that the writer wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought he was. The writer packed the film with symbols that presumably are meant to convey the real meaning of what is going on. The problem is that these are undeveloped. For example, there are cabs that refuse to pick up Dorothy in the several early scenes. This is a “racism” complaint made by black groups, that cabs won’t pick up blacks. Ok, so we are to read “racism” into the film, right... but why? What is the point to including it? There are no whites in this Oz, so who is the allegation made against exactly? And how does it fit into the story? It doesn’t seem to motivate or cause anything. It’s a bit like having a character hold up a picture of Jesus and point at it, only to have the film have nothing to do with religion.
Then you have the fake Wiz living at the World Trade Center, which is presumably some statement about wealth and power. But again, what does this mean? It’s never connected to the world we see. Outside, you have a huge number of sycophants who change the color of their clothes the moment the Wiz declares a new “in” color, which could be a statement against consumerism or peer pressure or perhaps some penchant in the black community to follow their leaders mindlessly... but if it is, you’ll never know because it doesn’t factor into any decisions that get made, it doesn’t motivate any character, and it doesn’t affect the plot. Likewise, there are statements about the existence of graffiti and worthless politicians that mean nothing. There are portrayals too that would normally bring howls of racism (blacks as crows or apes), yet, there is no message attached. In short, none of these symbols means anything.

This is poor writing. When you throw something into a story, it is supposed to have a purpose that helps the audience understand some aspect of the story they wouldn’t otherwise have known. Here things are included without any clues as to why they are included. What the writer has done is essentially take things that blacks in New York City complained about in the 1970s (corrupt politicians, racist cabbies, tenements, etc.) and has included them all without any purpose except to say, “Here’s a list of some things I hear black people talk about.”

This film fails at all levels. Its songs are hopelessly dull and forgettable, which is a real crime considering the talent they had on hand. The choreography creates a vibe that undermines the film. The characters are indifferent or unlikeable. The dialog is conflicted and confused. And the story itself is hollow. That no one caught this is shocking.



AndrewPrice said...

James Bond will be tomorrow.

Anthony said...

Some of the costumes were pretty cool (nods towards the Tinman) but aside from that I can't think of anything good about the Wiz.

Its unsurprising it sucked given all the talent involved. In my experience, star studded casts tend to be casts filled with people who don't fit their rolls as well as others could have. For example, Diana Ross's Dorothy looked more like a schoolteacher than a schoolgirl.

I watched the Wiz a couple times when I was a kid (damned if I can remember why), so I'm pretty sure the song MJ sang was 'Ease on down the road' rather than 'Move on down the road'. It wasn't a memorable song, so forgetting it is completely understandable.

Motown's days were always numbered, but they did themselves no favors wasting money and effort on a bunch of crappy movies, though I confess I have a soft spot for The Last Dragon (Shonuff!).

PDBronco said...

This was a case where Hollywood took a fun and entertaining Broadway musical and sucked all of the joy and life out of it. The Broadway production won the Tony in 1975 for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Featured Actor (Ted Ross), Best Featured Actress (Dee Dee Bridgewater), Best Costume Design, Best Choreography, Best Direction, and was nominated but did not win for Best Book - so nominated for 9 awards, won 8.

So the problem wasn't the source material, it was how it was translated to film. Mistake one was changing Dorothy from a young girl to an older Harlem school teacher (played by Diana Ross). Some of the casting was good - Ted Ross and Nipsey Russell come to mind, and Michael Jackson actually made a pretty good effort for his first film - but Diana Ross was nowhere close to what the lead should have been.

Mistake two was overloading the movie with too much social commentary that I don't remember being in the stage production (granted I was 15 or 16 when I saw the national touring company).

Mistake three I'd combine overproduction (Motown Records), horrible script/adaptation (Joel Schumacher), and bad direction (Sydney Lumet).

Overall, this was a good example of how Hollywood can ruin a good musical, and probably one of the signals that (at least by 1978) Hollywood had forgotten how to do musicals.

PDBronco said...

By the way, here's the link to the Wiki page on the Broadway production:

It's a great way to really see the differences between Stage and Film. The main difference is that on Stage, Dorothy was still a young Kansas farm girl. Nice little bit as well on how Diana Ross made a bit of a power play to replace Stephanie Mills, who had created the role on Broadway and was originally hired by Berry Gordy to play Dorothy in the film.

tryanmax said...

You remember how in the 90s, Fox affiliates would will their weekend afternoons by running old and obscure movies? That's the reason I've seen The Wiz.

My impression of The Wiz is that it feels strained. Great work looks effortless, but every performer in this show looks like they are grinding it out. Who knows, given that it's blaxploitation, that could've been an artistic choice. Perhaps the (lost) subtext is meant to say that White Dorothy had it easy. The result is a very tiring experience in watching the movie and a great sense of futility.

Also, the gritty fairy tale aesthetic never worked for me. Pick one or the other, either a pristine wonderland or a grimy inner city. The juxtaposition just feels like the depressing aftermath of someone else's party. But again, that could've been an artistic choice. It's hard to say whether so many bad choices can be made any way but consciously.

PikeBishop said...

My high school band director was a pretty good arranger and he did a mix called "Ease on Over the Rainbow" which combined the best elements of the best songs from both films. It was very good.

AndrewPrice said...

Anthony, It is "Ease on Down the Road." I kept writing it wrong because of some mental block. I even looked it up and still wrote Move instead of Ease. Bizarre.

I agree with you about all star casts. They seem to fall flat because they depend more on the fame of their cast rather than their appropriateness for the role. And yeah, Ross is way too old to play Dorothy.

This was apparently the most expensive musical ever filmed at the time and some credited it with killing the blaxploitation genre. I'm not sure I buy that though. I think film styles just changed.

AndrewPrice said...

PDBronco, I haven't seen the stage production, but I'm told it's actually pretty good. So I suspect you are right that the fault this time like with Hollywood -- bad adaptation, bad direction, bad script, etc. I get the feeling that the ultimate mistake was in trying to make this "BIG!" Hence, the dance numbers all became these behemoth numbers that may have looked good/impressive in concept, but ultimately proved cold. And the actors chosen were BIG rather than right for the part.

The social commentary is bizarre. I understand the things they are referencing, I just don't know why they are doing it. It doesn't affect the film. It's like they knew they had to do something like that, but weren't sure how so they just mentioned stuff and hoped people ran with it.

AndrewPrice said...

PDBronco, That's too bad because Ross is truly a weak point in this film. She mishandles the roll completely.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I agree. The greats make it look effortless, but this looks strained. Everyone in this film (except Jackson) looks like they are struggling and counting their steps in their head and trying to focus so hard on doing their thing that they don't even notice the others around them.

On the message, I honestly don't think they got that deep with the message. I think they knew some of the elements of "a message related to blacks", but never got around to actually coming up with what the message should be. So they toss in grievance points without rhyme or reason or explanation or connection.

And I agree about the fairy tale v. gritty stuff. You can't do a mix because it feels awkward. A good example here is Miss One, who is ostensibly the good witch (sort of), but who also happens to be a numbers runner. Huh? Why? All that does is pollute her character and make "good" sound no different than bad.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop,Sounds interesting. "Ease on Down The Road" is the one song I would have expected to find commercial success from this. The others are "too musical" or just garbage.

PDBronco said...

Andrew - my increasingly feeble (and aging) mind does remember at least one major company (either Xerox or an airline) using "Brand New Day" in commercials for a bit. But I believe its commercial use was before the movie came out. From the stage version, "Brand New Day" and "If You Believe" were probably the breakout/showstoper numbers (along with "Ease on Down The Road").

PikeBishop - The Wiz was popular in Drum Corps (DCI) for quite some time. And it does seem like one corps in the late-70's used a mix of The Wiz and Wizard of Oz as well - using "Over the Rainbow" as the show finale.

AndrewPrice said...

PDBronco, I haven't seen the musical, so I can't tell if they are better there, but they are completely lost in this film. Here they feel like "lifeless, generic 'musical sounding' song numbers X and Y." There are no lyrics, hooks or anything that make them memorable, and they aren't even accompanied by interesting visuals. It's almost a clinic in how not to present songs from a musical on film.

Koshcat said...

Either it was a poorly put together movie or you're just racist. You probably don't like Obama, think OJ is guilty, and MJ really slept with those kids.

I remember seeing it as a kid. The only thing I remember was Ease on Down the Road.

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, What's funny about the racial angle is that if this had been made by a conservative, I suspect there would have been a massive boycott accusing the director of racism. I doubt that much of what went into this film could be repeated today without complaint.

Koshcat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Koshcat said...

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Koshcat said...

What I hate about films like the Wiz, is its a complete ripoff the original. How about put a Harlem girl in the middle of a small town in Kansas and she has to find her way home. You can do all sorts of angles with that. Putting a Harlem girl in a weird Harlem is just weird and stupid.

Kit said...

Just watched the clip of "Ease on down the road".
Clip (3min 10sec): LINK

Had Sydney Lumet ever done a musical before this? The scene drags on too long with little to no sense of energy or movement. And it features Michael Freakin' Jackson! At no point does the scene take advantage of his dancing abilities.

They just dance around a bit in one place. No real sense of movement or energy.

You know what, for comparison, let's show how Victor Flemming handled "We're Off To See the Wizard".
Clip (1min 31sec): LINK

AndrewPrice said...

Koshcat, That's how they've always done remakes of The Wizard of Oz put it somewhere new and basically repeat the story as verbatim as possible. I don't have a problem with that so long as it's clever... this isn't.

In fact, most remakes of things like The Odyssey, which has some striking similarities to The Wizard of Oz, generally are just straight re-tellings in a different location with the challenges modernized. So again, it really doesn't bother me unless it's poorly done or lacks cleverness because I don't expect anything super original in the story itself.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, If you want to see lifeless and dull, check out the World Trade Center scene --> LINK. (Sorry about the low quality image of a television, but I can't seem to find a better version).

This is supposed to be one of the BIG memorable moments you will take away from the film, but it falls flat. Notice how slow and dull this is and how everyone is "dancing" with themselves. There is no energy, no sense of movement, no sense of dancing. And as you note with the "Ease on Down the Road" number, this one drags on and on way past the point it should have ended.

AndrewPrice said...

Also, check out the deliver of the line I mention in the article starting around 3:10.

Kit said...


You are right. Though I will say it does have more life in it than "Ease on Down the Road" but not much (I'm speaking visually, not the song).

But its worth comparing to the original.

Both are trying to portray a society that is decadent and superficial. Wizard of Oz does it in a few lines:
"We get up at twelve and start to work at one
Take an hour for lunch and then at two we're done.
Jolly Good Fun!"

Then there is the constant line "That's how we laugh a day away!"

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, Yep. The original is a lively song with a double meaning. Either things are perfect and fun in Oz, or they've become decadent and lazy and don't even know it. This then suggests why the Wizard has gotten away with it for so long and why they can't defeat the evil witches. It also plays off against the country v. city theme of the original.

The Wiz version just shows superficial and peer pressure obsessed people. It doesn't really add anything to enlighten their world. And I know that ultimately, you're supposed to compare these sycophants against Dorothy and see that she got to see the Wiz without trying to kiss his butt, but the problem is that it wasn't because of her attitude that got her the appointment -- it was the magic shoes, and she got her appointment despite her attitude.

Kit said...

Watching "No Bad News". Its actually pretty good. Well, compared to other ones from the The Whiz I've seen.

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, That and "Ease on Down The Road" are the two good songs in this film.

Rustbelt said...

I first saw this film in college on my university's movie channel. Specifically, what caught my eye was the World Trade Center scene, since, at the time, it was only weeks after- you guessed it- 9/11. I had no idea what to make of it, other than to call it a low-rent version of the 1939 movie. Some nice visuals, but the lack of focus and everything being off-the-wall made wonder what the director and his staff were on. Hey...there's an idea. Have a scene where they escape the bad guys using gliders to the tune of, "High as a Kite!"

BTW...what was the purpose of having Oz be a gritty version of American cities as opposed to its own reality? I've never understood it and can attribute it only to either odd art direction and/or laziness.

And just so we can get an official reaction...

"The Wiz is overblown and will never have the universal appeal [the 1939 film] has obtained."
-Ray Bolger, a.k.a. the Scarecrow from the 1939 film

Oh, and lest I forget...LINK (fast forward to 5:11)

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, The purpose was to make a blaxsploitation version, and blaxsploitation is always gritty. Blaxsploitation is basically about life in the NYC ghettos.

The WTC scene is a little strange now with historical hindsight.

Yeah, I heard that Bolger didn't like this and he was right.

PDBronco said...

Off topic, but a bit of WTC trivia. In the movie version of Godspell, the end of the number "All for the Best" was filmed on the top of one of the towers (I forget which one) just before construction was completed.

Kit said...

Its always at least a wee bit eerie whenever I see the World Trade Center in a movie.

AndrewPrice said...

It is an odd feeling.

Anonymous said...

I was a kid when I first saw The Wiz on TV, and I remember not caring for it too much. Years later, when my sister was in a high school stage production of it, I found it much more entertaining. I haven't watched the movie since then (why bother?), but a few things still stand out to me:

1) Dorothy (Ross) spent most of her time screaming or whining while running from her various predicaments. Annoying. I really didn't care whether or not she got home.

2) The Wiz (Pryor) was a wimpy 2-bit con man. (The character was more of a revival-type Gospel preacher from the play versions I've seen.) Total waste of Pryor's comedic talents. And why was his throne room a wreck when they came back from killing the witch?

In closing, I would like to nominate the Muppet's Wizard of Oz (2005, not sure if TV movie or straight-to-video) as the second-worst Afro-centric adaptation. The Muppets had a few chuckles, but once again, I couldn't give a hoot about Dorothy. Blech.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, You are so right about Ross. She spends all her time screaming, whining or looking like she's about to be beaten. She truly detracts from the film.

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