What a hot mess of a film. Parts of it are stunningly good, and parts of it are pretty damn awful. I never saw the stage musical but I read the summary, and was amazed at just how little of it showed up in the movie. I’ve seen plenty of movies “based on real events” which were actually only inspired by events. Here is a musical film that is only inspired by the stage. Now, that’s not entirely impossible. Bob Fosse did it with Cabaret which had massive changes from the stage, and was terrific. Not this one. They made changes all over the place, and most of them were really, really stupid.
You have to start off with the casting of Diana Ross as Dorothy. Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong! She was thirty-three, and Dorothy should have been no older than early teens. The mind reels to think of how many twelve-year-old black girls there were out there who could have killed in this part.
So why did it happen? Apparently because of Werner “If-you-can’t-hold-it-piss-in-your-pants” Erhard, founder of Erhard Seminars Training. A lot of people who should have known better fell for that bullshit in the ‘70s, including folks as varied as Cher, Jerry Rubin, John Denver, Yoko Ono, Stiller and Meara … and Diana Ross. And she wanted to star in this film, but re-write it to reflect the new-agey platitudes of EST. In Vegas they call a high roller a whale. In Hollywood, when a whale like Diana Ross wants to make a film, you do as she says. Quincy Jones, also into EST, was hired to write some new songs, all of which extolled EST ideas of believing in yourself (what a radical idea!) and similar feel-good baloney. Joel Schumacher, another fellow ESTian, was hired to totally re-write the thing, completing the triumvirate of disaster, and we were off, straight into the toilet. The Wiz was an epic bomb.
And it’s such a damn shame. Because there are things that are so good …
But more of the bad stuff, first. Ross spends the whole picture on the verge of tears. Shit! This should be a light-hearted story. She sings each of the new songs in the same way, starting out in a querulous whisper, building to an Ethel Merman shriek with tears streaming down her face. After the third one of those, I was totally bored. There is only one really memorable song, “Ease on Down the Road,” and another number that you won’t sing, but you can remember, “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.” All the rest are instantly forgettable. Were there better songs in the stage play? I don’t know.
Ross is a repressed schoolteacher who has never been south of 125th Street. Wrong! Dorothy should be adventurous, not timid.
Things they got right … in the stage play Dorothy was on a farm in Kansas, just like Judy Garland. Relocating it to Harlem was a real stroke of genius, as it enabled all the settings to be oriented to New York. They filmed at the New York State Pavilion from the ’64 World’s Fair, and in the huge plaza of the World Trade Center. (Alas.) They filmed on a roller coaster at Coney Island, and on sets looking like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Public Library, where the Lion emerged from one of the famous stone lions. All of that was great. The graffiti people coming out of the walls and dancing was just wonderful. The WTC number was way beyond stunning. The Yellow Brick Road was bright yellow (it was linoleum, provided by Congoleum!). All of that was swell.
But I have to fault the direction of Sidney Lumet. I assume the choreographer was responsible for the song and dance numbers, which were all totally wonderful. But Lumet directed the scenes in between, and most of them land with a dull thud. The timing was pitiful. I hate it when scene after scene indulges in long, soulful pauses as the actors emote, silently. Make it march, Sidney! Look at The Wizard of Oz. There are no long pauses between lines of dialogue. We move right along. Just by having the actors respond to each other quickly Lumet could have shaved twenty minutes off the running time which, at 133 minutes, was at least that much too long. The 1939 masterpiece is 101 minutes long. He should have learned from that. (BTW: Can you imagine if they re-made this that the writer and director of an all-black musical would be white men? Me neither, which is as it should be, and should have been …)
Notably bad performances: Richard Pryor is simply awful as the Wiz. Sorry man, but it’s true. And Lena Horne (who was 60 and looks 30, and was yet another EST believer) has a terrible song. Bored me to death.
Okay after all that, there are certain thing to praise. Michael Jackson is a pretty good Scarecrow, and dances well. Nipsey Russell is a good Tin Man and also dances well, which surprised me, and Ted Ross is an even better Lion. Best of all is the simply enormous Mabel King as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West in her sweatshop.
And there are things I cannot praise enough. The dancing is fantastic. The set design and costumes are among the very best I have ever seen. The special effects were by my friend Albert Whitlock, and they are seamless, just about as good as they could get in 1978. They consisted mostly of glass paintings and matte shots, and they are a delight to see. Why, oh why couldn’t the whole movie have been as good as this stuff?