The PlotDiana 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.
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 WrongThe 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.
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:
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:Keep on tryin’ and tryin’ and tryin’
You’re a lion.
I’m a lion.
In my own way, I’m a lion.
Apart from the two songs mentioned, you won’t remember a single line from the film.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.
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.
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.
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.