Tuesday, July 31, 2012

THE WIZ 1978

Phone call from Motown head honcho Berry Gordy to Universal Studios in regard to the already eight-months-into-preproduction film adaptation of The Wiz: “I just got awakened by a call from Diana (Ross) who wants to play Dorothy in The Wiz! She had a dream that she played the part and the film was one of the biggest smash hits of all time!”                          The Wiz Scrapbook by Richard J. Anobile

And thus began one of the most divisively controversial casting decisions since Jack Warner threw Julie Andrews over for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.

The Wiz is based on the 1975 Broadway musical that itself is a very 70s, funkified, all African-American reimagining of Frank L. Baum's children's book published in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The story of the little Kansas farmgirl who gets whisked away by a tornado and learns the value of home and family with the help of the characters she meets in the mythical land of Oz is a tale as well-known and beloved as Alice in Wonderland. The Wiz, which hews closely to Baum's book (silver slippers, not ruby) was created at the height of the 70s Black Pride revolution in fashion, music, film, and art. The Broadway production (billed then as The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz") was an attempt on the part of Charlie Smalls (music) and William F. Brown (book) to create a modern children's fantasy familiar enough to encourage crossover appeal, yet reflective of contemporary black culture. The score is full of songs influenced by funk, soul, and gospel; and the book is peppered with comic dialog deriving from 70s slang idioms. Thanks to the creative contributions of director/costume designer Geoffrey Holder and the powerhouse vocals of 17-year-old Stephanie Mills as Dorothy, The Wiz proved a great success and went on to win seven Tony Awards that year, including Best Musical. 
Diana Ross as Dorothy
Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow
Lena Horne as Glinda
Richard Pryor as The Wiz
Nipsey Russell as The Tin Man
Ted Ross as The Cowardly Lion
Mabel King as Evillene
Theresa Merritt as Aunt Em
When it was learned that Motown and Universal Studios were to collaborate on a film version of The Wiz, speculative casting buzz centered around Stephanie Mills reprising her Broadway role and Motown Golden Girl, Diana Ross, being cast as the glamorous Glinda the Good. Of course, all that changed with Diana's dream and subsequent early-morning call to Berry Gordy.

Disregarding the very real possibility Miss Ross’dream could just as well have been a nightmare, the powers that be behind The Wiz — a film that stood the chance of being one of the most expensive musicals ever made— abandoned plans to conduct a nationwide talent hunt for an unknown Dorothy and went with what must have seemed a smart business move: casting an internationally famous, Oscar-nominated singer/actress with mainstream appeal ...wrong for the part, but willing...over a talented, age-appropriate nobody. Thus, swayed by variables ranging from the whimsical (Diana wanted it, dammit!) to the practical (Ross' participation most assuredly contributed to the acquisition of other notables, like pal Michael Jackson and Lady Sings The Blues co-star, Richard Pryor), The Wiz was launched with considerable fanfare and star-power, but also amid a flurry of boxoffice-crippling negative publicity.
Although I find short hair and no-makeup to be one of my favorite looks for Diana Ross, empty theaters across the country indicated fans preferred their Ross glammed out and Mahogany-ized.
The mounting of a large-scale film adaptation of The Wiz was already a sizable professional gamble (not only was the public touchy about anyone challenging the memory of a film as beloved as The Wizard of Oz, but there had not yet been any kind of boxoffice precedent for a big-budget film with an entirely African-American cast), a gamble not entirely helped by the almost unanimously unpopular announcement that the, shall we say, “mature” Diana Ross would be playing Dorothy; a character whose age is unspecified in Baum’s books (a fact Ross was quick to point out at every opportunity) but whom even the most imaginative readers were unlikely to have envisioned as a fully grown woman.

One wonders how things might have turned out for The Wiz and indeed, Diana Ross' feature film career (it came to an abrupt halt with The Wiz) had Ross campaigned for the role of Glinda. As it now stood, the head-scratching incongruity of her casting and all the changes it precipitated (Dorothy was now a 24-year-old Harlem school teacher with a doozy of a social anxiety disorder, living in a brownstone with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry) fueled the public's already strong perception of Ross as an ego-driven diva, and overshadowed everything else about the film. It was virtually all anyone could talk about when the subject of The Wiz was brought up. The news set off a veritable tornado of outraged cries of ruinous miscasting the likes of which we wouldn't hear again until 1990 when perennial daddy’s darling, Sofia Coppola, plodded through the waters of nepotism and single-handedly sunk The Godfather Part III.
The casting of 33-year-old Diana Ross proved an insurmountable hurdle for many viewers, blinding them to The Wiz's many delightfully witty design concepts. Here, Dorthy and pals dance atop charmingly bulbous Oz Taxicabs (that are always off duty) in front of a surreal rendering of the Cowardly Lion's home, The New York Public Library. Yellow Brick Road traffic signals flash "Ease" or "Don't Ease" for pedestrians.

When Diana Ross was brought into The Wiz, the film's original director, John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) took a powder. Scrambling for a replacement, the studio settled on Sidney Lumet (Mr. Finish-it-on-time-and-under-budget) in spite of his inexperience with the musical genre...Hollywood seems to love to do this. Joel Schumacher, then-screenwriter (Sparkle, Car Wash), later hack-director (Batman and Robin), jettisoned the entire Kansas-to-Oz elements of the play and, at Lumet's suggestion, fashioned the film into an urban fantasy with an Oz resembling a surreal, fever-dream vision of New York. Schumacher, who, like Diana Ross, was a proponent of EST (Erhard Standard Training - the self-help teachings of Werner Erhard which were popular at the time), also inserted tons of Me-Generation proselytizing into the script and supplanted The Wiz's simple themes of "There's no place like home" with a great deal of the "You'll find it within yourself" navel-gazing of the 70s Human Potential Movement.
The Yellow Brick Road leading to the Emerald City
Tony Walton's Oscar nominated production design and costume concepts are the real stars of The Wiz
The relative haste with which The Wiz was fashioned perhaps explains why a film of this magnitude contains so many errors of editing, dubbing, and "We don't have time for a retake!" awkwardness. (As with many films, it was given a release date before even a foot of film was shot. Slated as a summer 1978 release, the date was later moved to the fall due to issues of weather, union strikes and Ross burning her retinas staring into the white beams of The Wiz's eyes.) Critics were quick to call attention to shots of a buckled yellow brick road, sweat stains under Miss Ross' almost perpetually upraised arms, poor lip-syncing by the Cowardly Lion, and surprisingly cheesy-looking special effects for a film that cost a whopping $24 million (Dorothy's mannequin-stiff entrance into Munchkin land and Glinda the Good's graceless"floating" were popular targets). However, almost unanimous praise was afforded the brilliant production design and costumes by Tony Walton (Mary PoppinsThe Boy Friend).
Dorothy Learns the Value of Friendship
In another of the film's witty, New York design concepts, the Yellow Brick Road leads to a subway entrance where a sign directs  passengers to "Get Down"

I first saw The Wiz in 1976 when the touring company of the Broadway show played in San Francisco. Renee Harris was taking over for Stephanie Mills and I remember it being a spectacular production; among the first in my experience to have that hyper-amplified sound so common in Broadway musicals today. My single strongest memory of the show is the fabulous staging of the tornado whisking Dorothy and her farmhouse away to Oz: The tornado itself was embodied by a beautiful, leggy dancer sporting a scarf headdress that billowed behind her, far beyond the wings of the stage. She danced seductively around the farmhouse, ultimately (and provocatively) straddling its roof. As the house began to rotate on a turntable, the ever-elongating scarf wound itself around and around the entire structure until it completely enfolded the house in the fabric. It was mind-blowing!
In The Wiz, Glinda the Good is something of a supernatural life-coach. Here she creates the tornado that will blow the house-bound Dorothy out of Harlem into a vision of New York unlike anything I'd ever seen. 

By the time the film version was released in October of 1978, I was living in Los Angeles and any initial trepidation I may have had about Diana Ross' casting had long been absorbed by all the exciting hype surrounding the film. Michael Jackson's film debut! Quincy Jones was arranging the music! Lena Horne was returning to the screen for the first time in almost ten years! From hot comic of the day Richard Pryor landing the role of The Wiz, to the behind-the-scenes talents of Tony Walton and Albert Whitlock (the latter, visual effects artist for The Birds, Earthquake, Day of the Locust), it seemed as if all the top talents in Hollywood were working on this musical. Once the colorful billboards and posters began appearing around town (tagline: The Wiz! the Stars! The Music! Wow!) and the Ross/Jackson duet single of "Ease on Down The Road" started playing on the radio...well, I was gone. Everything about the film looked so fantastic that I convinced myself the final film was going to be something so stupendous,  it would make us all eat our words at ever doubting the wisdom of casting superstar Diana Ross.
If there was any single image that sold me on the film version of The Wiz, it was this.  An Oz comprised of multiple Chrysler buildings with a Coney Island roller coaster in the distance. Outrageously clever! I figured any film with this kind of imagination couldn't be all bad.

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
As I mentioned in a previous post, the one way to get both the best experience of a movie yet at the same time the least reliable impression of how that film will perform at the boxoffice, is to see it on opening night. The Wiz opened at the famed Cinerama Dome theater in Hollywood. The Dome itself was bathed in yellow light, as were the decorative fountains out front. The only think missing was a literal Yellow Brick Road. Lines stretched around the parking lot and the sold-out audience was primed for an "experience." And that's what they got. The crowd ate the film up. Laughter drowned out dialog, special effects and sets drew gasps of approval, and the conclusion of every number was met with rounds of applause. The audience was especially responsive to Diana Ross' vocal performance (which, no matter what one thinks of her acting, is pretty phenomenal here). Seriously, Ross was never known as a belter or even considered particularly soulful...not in the Aretha Franklin vein, anyway...yet in The Wiz she displayed a versatility and range that had audience members literally screaming! By the time her soul-searing rendition of "Home" ended, some members of the audience were acting as though they were at a live concert. It was all very heady and a major goosebump experience for me, especially the dancing. Ah! Such dancing! Were The Wiz edited down exclusively to its dance sequences, that alone would be enough for me. Needless to say I was absolutely thrilled by The Wiz and was positive that the film was going to be a big, big hit. Of course I was dead wrong.
The cast of The Wiz reacts to early reviews
The newspaper critics savaged virtually everything about  The Wiz, all uniting in agreement over Diana Ross' adult Dorothy being a severe liability no amount of movie magic could overcome. The public even chimed in, complaining of the film being too dark (if cinematographer Gordon Willis ever shot a musical, it would look like The Wiz), too scary, too preachy, or just too somber in tone. Grease (a film I absolutely abhorred, by the way) emerged the big musical blockbuster of 1978, and The Wiz, much like the misguided reworking of the film's title character, pretty much slumped away in ignominious defeat.

PERFORMANCES:
I like Diana Ross a great deal. Indeed, I get teased a lot by my partner due to my baseless belief that she can't be as bad as her diva reputation would attest because she has such kind-looking eyes (I also think Faye Dunaway has kind eyes...so maybe my partner's teasing is well-deserved). I find Diana Ross very likable in The Wiz but I'm the first to say that she really needed to turn it down a notch. Her idea of conveying Dorothy's shyness is to approach the role as if she were portraying Laura in The Glass Menagerie...with all of the attendant ponderousness. She's far too high-strung and neurotic from the start. By the time she reaches Oz you almost expect her head to fly off, she's so unwound.
No one can say Diana Ross didn't throw herself into the role
The rousing production number Brand New Day is one of my favorites...for any number of reasons.
That being said, I think Ross is rather appealingly game throughout the film, throwing herself into the strenuous dancing and singing in a way I can't help but admire. She's in the finest voice she's ever been, and while I get a little worn down by her personality towards the end (she's a tad harsh on Richard Pryor), I have to say her grown-up Dorothy has never bothered me as much as it has others. A friend of mine once made the astute observation that when The Wiz came out, the concept of a grown-up unable to leave home was such an anomaly that audiences balked at what they considered the obvious contrivance of her character. Today, The Wiz could almost be used as a training film to motivate all those adult "Boomerang Kids" out of their parent's houses.
The Great and Powerful Oz

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
If my blog has any objective at all (which it doesn't, but I'm trying to make a point) it's to promote my firm contention that "good" movies are not always the ones we most enjoy, and that a film's boxoffice success or failure has absolutely no bearing on its actual quality or value as entertainment. For example: Variety's list of the 100 highest-grossing films of all time reads very much like an "avoid at all cost" inventory of my least favorite movies. Whereas the films that bottom out in the "flop" category (Day of the Locust, 3 Women, Two for the Road) are among those that have meant the most to me.
The great Quincy Jones makes a cameo as one of the fashion-conscious citizens of The Emerald City

The Wiz is in many ways a mess. There is little time devoted to character; it seems over-infatuated with scale over emotion; some script choices are seriously ill-advised (by this point, the cinematic de-fanging of irreverent comic Richard Pryor had come to border on the tragic, and it doesn't seem quite fair to the legendary Lena Horne to have Diana Ross have first crack at the song, "If You Believe" when she's going to sing it again just a few moments later); and finally, it's much too long. But I swear, there is something about The Wiz that has the power to lighten my heart every time I see it. It's certainly full of spectacle and eye-popping visuals, it has moments when it's lighthearted and fun, and there is no lack of energy and style in the thrilling musical numbers. Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, and Ted Ross provide refreshing contrast to Diana Ross' twitchy over-emoting (which reminds me of Joan Crawford's exhaustive earnestness), but even that is mitigated by her peerless singing, which is the finest part of her performance. Her rendition of "Home" forgives all transgressions.
The Emerald City sequence, filmed in the Plaza of the World Trade Center Towers
Above all it has to be Tony Walton's designs for the look of The Wiz that most distinguishes it and makes it a movie I can watch over and over again. Its whimsical take on a grungy New York City may not be to everyone's liking, but it is the single most cohesive thematic thread in a film that at times feels as if it were created by a hydra. Envisioning and constructing a complete fantasy world on film can't be easy, but Walton's contributions (he was Oscar nominated for his efforts) meet and even exceed the potential The Wiz had for being one of the great musicals of the 70s.
The New York State Pavilion of the 1964 World's Fair was transformed into Graffiti City for Dorothy's arrival in Munchkin Land  
The Emerald City
In a world where three Transformers films and three Twilight films rank among the highest-grossing movies of all time, you'll never convince me that audiences avoid films simply because they're "bad" or even "inept." Many factors play into why a movie flops, some of them having nothing to do with what's happening up there on the screen. People may claim that The Wiz bombed simply because it was a poorly-made film and that its all-black cast and Afrocentric worldview had nothing to do with it, but the truth remains that even high-quality films with black casts don't perform well (Eve's Bayou). Audiences brand them unilaterally as "not intended for us" and stay away. Yet films with all-white casts (of which there are literally thousands, yet no one seems to ever categorize them as such) are taken as a matter of course to represent all humanity.
Escapism Politicized
Does America's racial history make it impossible for audiences to see African-Americans onscreen without touching off  uncomfortable political responses?
In a strange way, The Wiz is one of those movies I think many people wanted to like, but the film kept thwarting the viewer's good will. Diana Ross' Dorothy is a tough nut to crack. Ross' one-note performance never engages our hearts. Then there is the matter of her "journey" in Oz. We're given endless spectacle in lieu of character identification and it's hard to find reasons to care what happens to her. The seriously flawed script, which relies on the impressive makeup effects to provide most of the character distinctions for the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man, doesn't always make a lot of sense...even for a fantasy. For example: I thought it a grievous mistake to have Dorothy actually "resolve" to kill Evillene as The Wiz requested. Killing her by mistake in an effort to get her broom is one thing...having her decide (however reluctantly) that murder is an appropriate means for getting back home is just weird.
Dorothy is just a little too happy for a woman who's just committed involuntary manslaughter

When I think of The Wiz and how much pleasure I derive from it in spite of it's flaws, I think of my friend, a big fan of Grease, who will call my attention to how much he loves that film in spite of its cast of middle-aged teenagers; icky message of "conform or be unpopular"; and the score's anachronistically 70s-sounding, disco-era musical arrangements.
Just like Dorothy discovers that her imperfect home is nevertheless a place that makes her happy, it's good to remember that movies that give you joy don't have to be perfect, they don't have to be popular, they just have to be right for you.
There's No Place Like Home
NOTES (factoids I couldn't fit in this post)*
In honor of The Wiz, I've added a second climax and made this post longer than it needed to be. :-)

Although The Wiz is only 34 years old, Diana Ross is the only major cast member still alive!

According to the book Footprints on Broadway by David W. Shaffer, dancer Gregg Burge (he played Richie in the film version of A Chorus Line, was featured on TV's The Electric Company, and co-choreographer of Michael Jackson's Bad video) appears as Michael Jackson's dance double in certain scenes in The Wiz and had to sign a release not to seek credit.

Copyright © Ken Anderson

25 comments:

  1. Argyle here. I’m having a hard time thinking I might have to watch this again. Have to say, I also liked Diana’s look in this film, sort of unintentionally avant-garde, hasn’t dated at all. Bare face, shirt-waist dress. And her casting sort of makes sense in that it is such a break from Judy Garland’s (relative) youth and freshness. If you’re going to re-make a classic, really re-imagine it. That said, I think I remember being miserable and bored out of my mind! But sometimes that can be a good reason to look at something again. Was Sidney Lumet married to Lena Horne at the time? I’m going to resist googling right now.) Just remember her insane number late in the film where she’s singing straight into the camera for a very long time “Be-a-leeve in ya say-ulf!” and she doesn’t seem very happy. And I love Lena Horne, but that reminded me of the weird “Bluebird” film with Elizabeth Taylor. Not flattering. And I mainly remember a very dark (lighting-wise) and empty (people-wise) film. Again, very different from the original (and I realize this was not at all a re-make, but I feel the need to compare and contrast.) Like the casting of Diana, almost willfully opposing “The Wizard of Oz.” Gloomy, shadowy versus glittery, glossy. Static, lonely sets versus busy, people-filled sets. Not saying it all worked for me though. Strange to remember how the World Trade Center was used in movies of that day, this, “Superman.” Talk about your gloomy, lonely, over-wrought places. Don’t mean to be such a downer; maybe a re-viewing will reveal artistic intentions and results that I missed in 1978. Unless my timing is screwy, I feel like the thud of “The Wiz” sort of set the stage for Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall” which really sparkled by contrast. Again, I’m not googling, just going off my memory. Thank you Ken!!

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    1. Hi Argyle
      Your memories sound pretty accurate to me, and echo what a lot of people felt/feel about The Wiz: it's a bit of downer. You're right in that the total reimagining of it succeeded in preventing undue comparisons with Judy Garland's film, but even I have to concede that it wasn't reimagined with a lot of joy attached. You may be too old to remember,but in the 70s New York was having a lot of financial trouble and there was all this talk about it being a city "dying." Far from being the somewhat sanitized city it is today, New York was in the papers for it's garbage strikes, horribly graffiti'd subways, and seedy 42nd street district. I'm afraid a great deal of this view was interposed on the film and to many today "The Wiz" is far too gloomy, scary, and dark.
      I hope no one reading the post thinks that I am calling for a rexamination of the film. By no means no! I just really enjoy it, but perhaps for a lot of weird reasons. If you have no personal fondness for it, I don't recommend subjecting yourself to it again. It is Loooooong! Thanks, Argyle, your recollections are very spot on and sound authentic to how you saw the film. In fact, you sound a good deal like a relative of mine who just couldn't get over with how dark the movie was and how needlessly scary it all seemed.

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  2. Argyle again. Feel I have to clarify: I felt bad for Lena Horne. She was so gorgeous. And she was hot at the time with her one-woman show and gowns by Giorgio Saint Angelo. Feel like she was badly directed.

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    1. At the time Sidney Lumet was married to Lena Horne's daughter, but I think he had some mother-in-law issues he wanted to work out. Horne is rather ill-served by the film and her scenes looked the most to me to have suffered from odd creative decisions and the need for retakes. I mean why that bulky, unflattering, intergalactic gown for one of the sleekest bodies in show biz? Why pin her to a wall like an insect and have her "bounce" her way through her number? A number that Diana had sung just two seconds earlier. The overlong film didn't need any extra padding by this point and had already had at least two conclusions by now. No, Lena Horne was not particularly well-served by "The Wiz" (not even particularly well lit).
      Argyle, I think your comments are very valid and far from a "downer" take on the movie. In fact, I think they really illustrate how "The Wiz" was one of those movies a lot of people "wanted" to like, but didn't, and when they didn't perhaps weren't sure if it was OK to not like it. Take it from me, I love this movie in all its misguided miscalculations, but let's face it, the filmmakers didn't really have it all together. My pleasure in the film is derived from things unique to what appeals to my personality. Not because "The Wiz" is wonderful. Stick with your first impressions. You're a pretty observant movie fan and you know what you like. I'd hate to be the one to rob you of 133 minutes of your life (again) because I just happen to have a soft spot for this endearingly overwrought musical. As always, I love hearing your observations (the Liz Taylor "Bluebird" reference was the best!)Thanks, Argyle

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  3. Diana the Diva's story of having a dream about starring in the film sounds like something she'd make up just to get the role.

    I saw this at the theatre a couple years or so ago, after having seen it on television many years before. It stands up rather well. The subway sequence is rather memorable. I do know that Sidney Lumet was not exactly pleased with the overall result. The songs are rather catchy, though. The sets and the costumes are extremely impressive--everything's so colour co-ordinated, and there is a definite wow factor when seeing them on the big screen.

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    1. Ha! Poor Diana...she should have known how that one act of ambition might be perceived by the public as being on par with taking candy from a baby.

      Every time I talk to someone about the film, most have their favorite memorable sequences, but only a few really love the film. But like Xanadu and other cult-hits, those who love "The Wiz" REALLY love it!
      Seeing it on a big screen is indeed quite impressive, and I've always found the music, dancing, and Tony Walton's sets and costumes to be enough compensation for those areas where you're just left with "What were they thinking?"

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  4. Great post! Diana Ross' acting "choice" in "The Wiz" still saddens me because it ended her chance to become a major movie star. She had so much pizzazz in "Lady Sings the Blues" (another problematic 70s movie)and then squandered all of that good will on "Mahagony" and "The Wiz."
    Like you, I love what Tony Walton did design-wise. With a different director and a vivacious Ross this could have been a classic.
    I chuckled when you referenced Gordon Willis (like most people you forgot that he DID shoot a musical - "Pennies from Heaven" - which I think was an even bigger bomb than "The Wiz"!)

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    1. OMG! I DID forget about "Pennies from Heaven"!!!! That film was absolutely gorgeous to look at, but about as much fun as a trip to the dentist. I love the musical numbers in it (everyone should see Christopher Walken dance) but virtually nothing else. It’s so brilliant that you remembered that!

      Yes, "The Wiz" leaves a lot of viewers with the feeling that a lot of money and talent had not been put to the best use. Movies are so collaborative its always hard to lay the blame at one person's feet, but Diana Ross makes it easy for us all by giving a lead-balloon performance that submerges everything that is most unique and engaging about her as a personality. Sometimes in the film it looks as if she has spent entirely too much time with an acting coach. A bad one.
      To this day I still think Ross should have been Glinda, and the film mounted with notable African-American stars supporting an unknown little girl as Dorothy. But I guess they tried something like that with "Annie" and that didn't fare much better than "The Wiz".

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  5. This is a film that I wanted to love when I first saw it. I was 10 at the time and even back then I knew the film was no good.

    I was so disappointed that I have a very hard time even watching it today. I do however love the music and the soundtrack is a mainstay in my music library.

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  6. Hi PTF

    While I can't agree with you that "The Wiz" is no good, I identify with what you say about really wanting to love a film and finding it wanting. Both "Grease" and "Nine" I really wanted to like, but hated the execution of both that I too can't bring myself to watch them. I just see the lost opportunities.
    But, as I say ad nauseum in my posts, a movie we don't like and even a movie we hate isn't necessarily a movie that is "no good." I can watch "The Wiz" with my partner, and just have a ball ripping the film to shreds (deservedly so). Yet I've heard many of my younger dance students speak of it and I have watched it with my two nephews, and they are thrilled by it, finding it joyous and magical, wanting to watch it again and again.
    If there's one thing almost everyone agrees on is that "The Wiz" lacks heart. I don't know of anyone who has been touched by it made to cry. A kid's movie without heart (any fantasy for that matter) is a hollow experience...for me that's "The Wiz"s biggest shortcoming.
    But as you say, the score for the show is particularly strong, so much so as to incite disappointment at the flawed film constructed around it.

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    1. You know in re-reading my post I realize I made an unfortunate choice in words. I think what I was trying to say and you said much better than I did was that I was disappointed in the overall execution.

      I've tried watching it straight through countless of times and just couldn't get through it.

      I do have to agree that Tony Walton came up with some highly imaginative designs and the musical numbers, "A Brand New Day (Everybody Rejoice)", "Home" and "If You Believe (Reprise)" are all winners but it isn't enough for me to make an overall satisfying experience.

      You're absolutely right when you say it lacks heart...and warmth. It's too dark and Ross' high, screechy histrionics ultimately grated on my nerves.

      Curiously it has gained a cult status and Universal continues to make it available. I just came across the blu-ray the other day while shopping so there is still an audience for the film.

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    2. Hi PTF

      Thanks for the follow-up email. I kinda thought that's what you meant, but were just being concise. Beyond an individual's personal emotional response to the film, it's difficult not to categorize "The Wiz" as a film that, given the talent and budget, fell far short of its potential. because it does harbor tiny snatches of brilliance is where it might have gained its cult status. It's far from perfect, but there's a lot of good thrown in, here and there. Thanks for elaborating your point of view!

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  7. Ken, I haven't seen "The Wiz" since it opened at, if I recall, the now long-gone Northpoint Theater in San Francisco. I thought it was a bit of a mess, to tell you the truth and haven't seen it since. I'd completely forgotten it was directed by Sidney Lumet. How odd. Do I dare revisit???

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    1. Hi Eve

      I didn't know you were a San Francisco girl (or I'd forgotten)! The old Northpoint is where I first saw Ken Russell's "Tommy"...about 8 times.
      As I hinted to a previous poster, I would hate to be the one responsible for you losing 135 minutes of your life revisiting this film only to discover your first impressions were correct.
      Some movies do undergo a kind of nostalgia-born revisionist alchemy over time, but I can't say "The Wiz" does the trick. It's length, dark tone, and the weepy Dorothy are sizable hurdles. Best to stick to your state of blissful amnesia where this film is concerned! :-)

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  8. I think the funniest thing about "The Wiz" is that it was directed by Sidney Lumet--probably the most un-musical director around. By that time, Sidney had quite the reputation for directing great films with minimal music. Some of his best known films have little-to-no incidental music. "Dog Day Afternoon" has zero non-diegetic music (i.e. the only music we can hear is actual music that can be heard by the characters). "Network" is devoid of non-diegetic music. Both films were right in the same period as "The Wiz". Going back a little, "Fail-Safe" was another "music-less" movie. I don't seem to recall much non-diegetic music in "The Group", either. Sidney must've wondered what the hell was going on with all this music blaring, half-naked people jumping around, Diana Ross screeching her head off. I'm not even sure to call this a Sidney Lumet movie, because his fingerprints are barely on this one.

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  9. I know what you mean. I feel the same when I watch "Annie"...craggy old man's man John Huston running roughshod over a gaggle of little girls...never made much sense. I appreciate the theory that a non-musical director might bring something fresh to the mix, but usually they bring a total lack of understanding of the genre. Interesting what you bring up about Lumet's use of music. In "The Group" his exclusive use of period school songs sung by a girl's choir is one of the strongest things i remember about that film. Interesting observations, Mark!

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  10. Just tumbled onto your blog! I love it. I am also a lover of great cinema. I really love The Wiz and I've done so since I was a small child. I wanted to mention that the "low-cost" feel was most likely done to convey the urban starkness and hunger for the birth or maintaining of dreams, which make them all the more important to one's well-being and soul.

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    1. Hello!
      Always nice to meet someone who loves film as much as I do. Also, it's nice to hear from someone besides myself who enjoys the film. I agree, a good deal of what many might have characterized as the film's offputting urban starkness was a way of making a visual statement on how the fanciful and magical can be found within the everyday that we might otherwise see as squalid.(I love how such dismal NY city phenomenons like garbage strikes, graffiti,red-light districts, are converted into a kind of "Wonderland" Dorothy makes her way through). I've always thought that had "The Wiz" kept the dream framework of "The Wizard of Oz" and had Ross awakening at the end, the dark and scary vision of New York we have seen would only have been a fever-dream embodiment of her fears of the big city and leaving home. All the young people I know who like the film do so for the reason you state: the film is about the importance of dreams.
      Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts and hope you stop by again!

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  11. 'Brand New Day' is a gem. A good editor could re-edit this film into a classic! I would have Dorothy's scenes shortened. Diana's voice is grand.

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    1. Hi Anonymous.
      You know, I think you might have something there! There is plenty that is wonderful and salvageable, and re-edits can sometimes totally re-create a film (films like The Wild Party, and New York New York were greatly improved by many-years-after-the-fact editing). Though they could leave "Brand New Day" alone. It is wonderful, as is. And indeed, as you indicate, Ross is in terrific voice. thanks for your post suggesting something someone should have suggested years ago.

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  12. I am watching the WIZ right now. I have a love and hate relationship with this movie. I tune out certain parts of the movie and as soon as I am ready to turn the channel an incredible scene like new day pulls me back in. Every time it comes on I can not help but watch it. The very thing I hate about this movie is the very same thing that draws me to watch it over and over again, which is its dark and gloomy scenery. I have to admit I am known for watching movies that the average person would not enjoy. I was born and raised in New York in the 70's and I find Diana's character relatable in some ways. Just because the world may seem scary that can not stop you from going out there and living your life. It will not be easy but you can still find joy even in the gloom.

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    1. Hi Booklyn!
      "the Wiz" is a perfect holiday movie I think. It doesn't require all f your attention, but as you mention, it has many great scenes that just pull you in. I like how you are drawn to its dark and gloomy appeal and that you are honest about your love/hate relationship with it. I think most fans of the film will attest that it is not perfect, but it does have a unique charm, and no one could fault the musical sequences.
      As a New Yorker who lived there in the 70s, it speaks well for "The Wiz" that its fantasy has within it something you can relate to. I think you made a wonderful case for folks to give this gem another look if they haven't seen it in a while. I so much appreciate your comments. Thanks!

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  13. Hello All,

    Everyone's commentary is quite enthralling. I actually didn't intend to read all of the replies, but did.

    In all honesty, I landed on this page because I am looking to throw a birthday party for my husband who absolutely loves The Wiz. He hails it as one of the best black productions of all time. Possibly so. However, I am not quite as amused nor impressed... but I digress.

    Does anyone have any The Wiz party ideas? My apathy for the film is outweighing my creativity; Yet and still, I love him with all my heart and want to throw him The Wiz surprise party he'll never forget.

    Suggestions?... (please!!!)

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  14. I probably have never responded to a blog, Ken..but I had to reply. While millions of folks absolutely hate THE WIZ, I'm actually one of the millions that LOVE IT! Thats right. There really are millions of people that are moved by it. It is my absolute favorite movie of all time! I remember going to see it as a kid and being afraid of it. It was indeed dark. I got the album for Christmas and screamed when I got it because I was afraid. LOL..THE WIZ over the years has crept into the hearts of many many folks. It has moved and continues to move people in ways that are indescribable. This film was specifically designed for a certain type of individual. I've noticed that those that love the film are very much spiritually in tune with the universe, they are otherwordly, whimsical, and mystical beings that understand whats beneath the surface of things. its not a film to be approaced from a place of technicality...its a film to be experienced. Just go where IT goes and you'll receive the gift it brings.

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    1. Hi Devon
      Thank you so much for your beautifully expressed love of this film. Indeed, my experience has been that those who love it (and each new generation seems to bring new youngsters to it who marvel at its music and refreshingly old-school lack of GCI spectacle) love it a great deal and hold a fondness for it in their hearts like everyone should have about at least one film they see when they’re a kid.. A great many films, especially musicals, were not well-received on initial release ("Singin' in the Rain", the original "The Wizard of Oz", believe it or not!) but find their audiences as the years go by. I love that it is an all-time favorite of yours and that you were a child when you first saw it and it scared you.
      Your post speaks to what movies are all about...they give each of us a uniquely personal experience, even when we're in a crowded theater. Even though I find the film uneven, I am always thrilled to hear from huge fans of the film. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your love for this movie and for reading this post!

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