Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
THE WIZ (1978)
The Wiz sounds like it’s about pee. HA, SUCH A GREAT JOKE, BILL, YOU WIN AT MOVIES. Anyway, it’s The Wizard of Oz, but if Oz were the city of New York with a paint job. Also, all the actors have something in common: they’re in The Wiz!
If you weren’t aware, I am white, and The Wiz is a movie with an all-black cast. I spent a good portion of the runtime wondering if I was “getting” its message. This Oz is a magicked-up version of New York City, one that Dorothy (Diana Ross) is afraid to explore, and I was curious what it might be trying to say about the difficulties of being black in NYC in the 1970s. How are the struggles of the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson), Tin Man (Nipsey Russell), and Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) reframed in this context? Do black Americans feel like education, love, and courage are constantly out of reach in this country? What lengths must they go to in order to truly believe that they have the potential to succeed?
On the other hand, look out, garbage can monsters!
So, yeah, there are some poignant moments in The Wiz and some silly fun bits, but there’s also a lot of filler. Many scenes go on longer than they need to, adding up to an unnecessary 134-minute runtime, and on top of that, odds are you’re already familiar with the plot of The Wizard of Oz, so there’s a lot of knowing what will happen while guessing what kind of spin this adaptation will put on it.
The Munchkins are living graffiti. Neat?
It all averages out to… well, a very average story.
If there’s one thing I likes in my musicals, it’s when somebody can act while singing, and Diana Ross brings it on that front. Sure, she’s also great just exploring Oz with fear and wonder, but the finale is where she really blows you away with emotion.
Look at those tears!
Michael Jackson is bright and cheerful as the Scarecrow, though he never really makes it beyond seeming like Michael Jackson in a costume, especially when he sings. No crotch grabs, but you can tell he’s thinking about it.
Nipsey Russell brings kind of a wacky drunk uncle vibe to the Tin Man, which is about as fun as having a wacky drunk uncle.
Like, he’s a hoot, but he misses his ex-wife and it’s pretty sad.
Ted Ross brings all the bravado, flair, and skittishness you could possibly ask for to the role of the Cowardly Lion.
No ribbons, sadly, but plenty of style.
The Wicked Witch of the West, whose parents thought naming her Evillene was a good idea, is played as over-the-top as humanly possible by Mabel King. Bafflingly, she gets almost no screentime in this gigantic movie, but maybe that’s because the world just couldn’t handle her.
She went as a Mardi Gras float for Halloween.
And finally, what about the titular Wiz? Richard Pryor does a solid job as the timid little man posing as the great and powerful Oz, but he’s much better as a big booming silver robot head.
This is exactly what Superman III was missing.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
I’ve got to be honest, most of the songs in The Wiz didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. They came in two flavors, slow and sad or upbeat and funky, and I often found either the tune or the lyrics forgettable. There are too many to review every song, but here are the hits.
“He’s the Wizard” is a fun, almost circus-y number all about the Wiz. It’s got a lot of children singing on it, which can be a bit grating, but they make up for it by dancing around a crazy set en masse.
Here they are getting raptured.
Some crows force the Scarecrow to sing “You Can’t Win, You Can’t Break Even” to remind him of his place, which is very symbolic indeed, I think, maybe, tell me if I’m overthinking it. For such a bummer of a loser song, its horn section is happy as fuck and Michael’s voice is sweet as sugar.
Crank up this sad, sad jam at your next party!
The only song I’d already heard before watching this was “Ease On Down the Road,” and rightly so. It’s incredibly catchy, as evidenced by the fact that I can’t stop singing it as I type this. Gotta say, it was a little weird of a choice to film it with the characters’ backs facing us almost the entire time.
Psst! We’re over here!
After a downer song about feelings or some junk, the Tin Man breaks into “Slide Some Oil to Me,” which is definitely my number one favorite song about getting lubed up. For bonus points, there’s a tap dance to go with it!
Or maybe a clank dance, in his case.
The Cowardly Lion gets a song called “I’m a Mean Ole Lion” in which he explains that he is, in fact, a mean ole lion. Not sure if he’s really making his case with all the lighthearted dance moves, but at least it’s fun.
Aww, I want to cuddle with the dangerous animal!
Ladies and gentlemen, the Poppy Girls!
It’s just an instrumental, but the dancing is great!
Evillene busts out a gospel song called “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News,” which mostly consists of her repeating the title and cracking her whip in a sweat shop. And it’s great.
Honestly, why are the depressing songs so catchy?
Spoiler alert, Evillene is defeated, so everybody strip down to your skivvies and dance to “A Brand New Day”! As a fan of happy music and underwear, I give it an A+!
And finally… oh man… Diana Ross just utterly kills it on the finale. Throughout the film, she’s been singing bits of a song called “Home,” and when her adventure is over, she, well, brings it home. She reflects back on her journey through Oz, questioning whether it was real or not, with tears in her eyes and visions of her new friends flying by. It’s powerful and emotional and she belts it out directly to the audience in one continuous take. My heart!
Also my brain and my noive!
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
While “Slide Some Oil to Me” has a line about lubing up your throat, the only weird lyric I actually laughed at was this headscratcher from “Soon as I Get Home/Home” where Dorothy is fearful of a big Wiz…
“And just what’s a Wiz?
Is he big? Will he scare me?”
Just about every aspect of The Wiz comes in three flavors: profound, whimsical, or boring. The story, the performances, the songs, the set design, the costumes, you name it… every few minutes my reaction was “clever,” “fun,” or “yawn.” There are some truly great moments in The Wiz, but it would have benefited from a little more focus and streamlining. It’s solidly mediocre, but I’d tip it in the “worth watching” direction, which is more than I can say about other projects from Joel Schumacher.
Bye Bye Birdie (1963)