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  Wiz, The Ease On Down The ProfitsBuy this film here.
Year: 1978
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Theresa Merritt, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne, Richard Pryor, Stanley Greene, Clyde J. Barrett, Derrick Bell, Roderick Spencer-Sibert, Kashka Banjoko, Ronald 'Smokey' Stevens
Genre: Musical, Fantasy
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: It's Thanksgiving, but Dorothy (Diana Ross), a twenty-four-year-old kindergarten teacher, still feels alone despite having her family around her. She prefers to spend time on her own than join the celebrations, and once her relatives leave she chats with Aunt Emma (Theresa Merritt) who she lives with. Emma tells her she should be setting her sights higher than kindergarten and consider a job upgrade to high school teacher, but Dorothy doesn't have the courage to break out of her limited experience. Suddenly, her dog Toto rushes out of the open door and into the snowstorm outside, and Dorothy runs out after him, calling his name. But when she catches him, something catches her: a whirlwind of snow that picks her up and carries her away to the Land of Oz...

Yes, it's The Wizard of Oz again, only this time it's the Motown-produced version of the popular mid-nineteen-seventies stage show. Scripted by a future director, the much maligned Joel Schumacher, it takes the Charlie Smalls original score to the L. Frank Baum tale and opens it out with huge sets and showstopping dance sequences - or at least that was the idea. In practice, would be audiences preferred to stay at home and listen to the soundtrack double album, and the film was a notorious flop in its day, the last film Ross would make during this decade, even if it might have been the one she was best suited to vocally considering all the singing that was involved.

Although a lot of money was thrown at this project, you can't help but notice how drab it looks, especially in comparison to the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz. I don't know if it's the way those sets were lit, or director Sidney Lumet's choice to make the whole production look as authentically "New York" as possible, but there's an unsettling quality of a downbeat mood, no matter how uplifting it's supposed to be. The film sticks to the book fairly closely in some respects, no ruby slippers here it's your silver slippers this Dororthy is wearing, but there are deviations such as the Munchkins now being graffiti figures come to life now that the wicked old witch is dead.

The good witch who tells Dorothy about her accomplishment in overthrowing dictators is Miss One (Thelma Carpenter), a number obsessed woman who suggests if Dorothy wants to get back home she should see The Wiz of the title. But rather than point out the yellow brick road that will take her there, she abandons her in the middle of nowhere so Miss Ross can sing a plaintive melody and only stumbles across the celebrated highway when she meets up with the Scarecrow. He is played by a pre-plastic surgery Michael Jackson, looking more normal in his costume and makeup then than he does now, and is being taunted by a group of crows who won't let him down. It's still recognisably the old story, and the new take on it should be refreshing.

So why isn't it? Perhaps it's simply because the 1939 version is so vivid in the mind that The Wiz seems like a Johnny Come Lately imposter. Soon Dorothy meets the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) in a rundown fun fair that is eerily deserted, and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) who was a statue in front of a library, but of the Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King), here named Evillene, there is barely a sign. Someone is obviously out to get them, however, as we see when the gang reach the subway and are attacked in a nightmarish sequence by growing puppets, bins and pillars. When we get to the Wiz himself in Emerald City, he's a huge silver mask with the voice of Richard Pryor and he sends them on their witch-killing mission. The lesson about having a brain, heart and courage being things you had anyway are avalanched in sentimentality, and a dance number featuring people peforming in their underwear is just an example of the uncertainty of tone here. It's interesting, but nowhere near as life-affirming as it hoped to be.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Sidney Lumet  (1925 - 2011)

Esteemed American director who after a background in theatre moved into television from where he went on to be the five times Oscar nominated filmmaker behind some of the most intelligent films ever to come out of America. His 1957 debut for the big screen, 12 Angry Men, is still a landmark, and he proceeded to electrify and engross cinema audiences with The Fugitive Kind, The Pawnbroker, Cold War drama Fail-Safe, The Hill, The Group, The Deadly Affair, The Offence, definitive cop corruption drama Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon (another great Al Pacino role), Network, Equus, Prince of the City, Deathtrap, The Verdict, Running On Empty and his final film, 2007's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Often working in the UK, he also brought his adopted home town of New York to films, an indelible part of its movies for the best part of fifty years.

 
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