This article originally appeared in the November 7, 1978 issue of the Boston Phoenix
The Wiz, Sidney Lumet's movie adaptation of the Broadway musical, is a real stinker. Although it's hard to imagine a new version of L. Frank Baum's fantasy that measures up to the enchanting 1939 Wizard of Oz (with Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, et al.), the notion of an all-black, soul-music remake isn't intrinsically silly. But let's face it: The Wiz, 1975's biggest Broadway hit, was a bit of a crock to begin with. Shallow, coy and overlong, the stage show as no better written than your average sit-com; it succeeded mostly by dint of flashy costumes, swift choreography, deafening (but not particularly pleasant) songs, and the paucity of other musicals that year. From this mediocrity, Lumet and his crew have fashioned an out-and-out monstrosity. Costing over $30 million, The Wiz is the most expensive screen musical ever made. And all that cash was bound to weight a fairy tale down. Direc6ting this first musical, Sidney Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon) has concocted a film that jerks along from one grandiose set-piece to another, skipping the intimate, in-between moments that might have lent it all some rhythm, unity or momentum. Villains appear, do their numbers and disappear without consequence, as if they were auditioning for some dark, gaudy revue; the sensation of menace that kids and grown-ups alike love so much in the Judy Garland movie is nowhere to be found. Stuffed with big, clumsily staged production numbers that seem to go on forever, The Wiz is at once chaotic and inert.
|The Wiz | Directed by Sidney Lumet | Written by Joel Schumacher | From the play by William F. Brown. Music and lyrics by Charles Smalls | With Diana Ross, Michael Jcakson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross and Mabel King | At Cinema 57|
The movie has also sacrificed the stage show's hip jiving about black life, replacing it with a preachy condescending Sunday-school tone that most adults will find about as compelling as Captain Kangaroo. Indeed, the new Wiz is a black musical in casting only – and with good reason. If it doesn't attract an enormous white audience, it will be a financial disaster, regardless of the size of its black box office. Still, one wonders why the filmmakers have created such a moralizing atmosphere. Did they hope to con parents into dragging their kids to an educational, uplifting "experience"? Perhaps. But for my money, the film's message doesn't make a lick of sense. When we first meet Dorothy, we're surprised to find that she's not a child and she's not from Kansas. Played by 34-year-old Diana Ross (who lobbied extensively to get the part), she's been transformed into a timorous 24-year-old Harlem schoolteacher. At Aunt Em's, where the whole family is gathered for some sort of jolly shindig, Dorothy mopes around as if she were hiding a terrible secret. What with all the shots of couples necking and chubby little babies, I thought we were going to se a really hip Wiz, with Dorothy as an unwed mother. No such luck: this Dorothy's gloom is existential. As Sidney Lumet has said, The Wiz is "a story about a search for self-knowledge", and Dorothy is a modern, educated black woman who's so shy that she's never ventured beyond 125th Street. Sweet old Aunt Em has some suggestions. Dorothy should get out more. Find a man. Move into an apartment of her own. Stop teaching kindergarten and try high school (Huh? Who in her right mind would want her niece to teach high school in Harlem?) Outside, a blizzard rages, and suddenly Toto, Dorothy's beloved pooch, trots into the storm. When Dorothy gives chase, she and Toto are swept up by – I swear it – a white tornado, by all appearances the same one housewives are always discovering in cans of Ajax.
Plopped down in the land of Oz, Dorothy wonders where she's landed. But we know: she's finally gone beyond 125th Street. The film's central gimmick is that Ox is but a stylized New York City, with refurbished, exaggerated Big Apple locations, flattened against unnaturally bright skies. The Munchkins emerge from the graffiti in a playground at Flushing Meadow; Dorothy meets the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson of the Jackson Five) near a burnt-out Harlem tenement and the Tine Many (Nipsey Russell) at the Coney Island roller coaster; the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) bursts from one of the statues on the steps of the 42nd Street Library. The yellow brick road, made out of cheap linoleum that looks like the stuff in the men's room at Howard Johnson's, stretches across the Brooklyn Bridge (past a marvelous skyline full of Chrysler buildings) to the plaza of the World Trade Center, which is decked out like a disco. New Yorkers will marvel, no doubt, at the spectacle of a Gotham without pollution and pooper-scoopers, but the sets will probably just puzzle most of the rest of the world. How many moviegoers in Des Moines know what the 42nd Street Library looks like? This must be the most expensive in-joke in the history of movies.