ASCII by Jason Scott

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The Wiz —

Lately, I’ve been concerned with some weighty issues; concerns of law, procedures of licensing, the capturing of history and the pain of network/system administration. But one question has been gnawing at my soul for the past month or so, working its way into my quiet times, and threatening to take over all my attention if not aired for the world.

Why is “The Wiz” such a bad movie?

I never saw this movie in the theater as a kid; it didn’t play in Fishkill, NY and all my movie experience before I was 12 came from either the theater in the Dutchess Mall or from the local drive-in. I read about it in a magazine about how much work was done on the production, how they used all these great locations in New York City, and what cool stuff they did with special effects. I figured it was great.

Recently, an episode of the show Family Guy obscurely referenced the song Brand New Day from The Wiz, and this caused me to track down the source of the song and acquire a copy of the movie. I watched it through, figuring I’d finally give some time to a classic.

Oh man, was I wrong. I’d go off on it for 10 paragraphs about why it was so bad, but someone scooped me and did so brilliantly, I will yield the stage to him. This review originally appeared in IMDB.

Sleaze on down the road…

17 September 2004

Author: Merwyn Grote (majikstl@aol.com) from St. Louis, Missouri

THE WIZ is a bad movie. It is a very bad movie. It is an extremely very bad movie.

To watch it is to be infuriated by just how much potential it has and how far it falls from even vaguely achieving success. A black, urban version of “The Wizard of Oz” is an intriguing idea. The musical score is okay and at least three of the songs are better than average. The budget was obviously substantial and a lot of effort was put into transforming New York City into Munchkinland, the Emerald City and points in between. But rather than being in awe of the spectacle, one is more likely to stare in disbelief and ask “What were they thinking?”

Sidney Lumet, a fine director noted for making small, dark and often depressing dramas (12 ANGRY MEN, FAIL-SAFE, THE PAWNBROKER, etc.), seems ill-prepared to make a big budget musical based on a series of children’s books — and, unfortunately, he proves it. I don’t think he makes a single intelligent directorial decision in this entire film: the lighting is gloomy, camera placement consistently ineffective and the editing clumsy. His choice of soft, grainy imagery over crisp, clear pictures makes the atmosphere oppressive. The set design, art direction and costuming, while impressive, still look numbingly cheap and tawdry. Scenes filmed on location at New York landmarks look like they take place on cramped soundstages. The film is just plain ugly to watch.

Worse, Lumet seems to have directed the actors to perform in a soap opera style that is embarrassingly overwrought: the prevailing mood is of whining self-pity. Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell and Ted Ross get in a few good moments as The Scarecrow, The Tin Woodsman and The Cowardly Lion, but there is not a single honest moment to be found in the performance by Diana Ross. To accommodate Ross, six-year-old Dorothy from the book (played as 13 by 16-year-old Judy Garland in THE WIZARD OF OZ), now is a 24-year-old Harlem kindergarten teacher. At 34-years-old, Ross looks more like she is pushing 50, yet displays the emotional maturity of a three-year-old.

Ross’ miscasting is legendary, but her inappropriateness for the role pales in comparison to her actual performance. In rewriting the story for Ross, Joel Schumacher’s screenplay changes Dorothy from being a winsome, wide-eyed child to an emotionally unstable adult. In Ross’ dubious hands the character seems both mentally and emotionally retarded, yet she somehow manages to avoid making the character in any way sympathetic. Strident, always on the verge of hysterics, it is, simply put, one of the all time worst screen performances.

Richard Pryor fares little better. Instead of the lovable charlatan played by Frank Morgan in the 1939 version of the story, the Wizard is now a cowering little fraud, devoid of wit or charm. Why hire Pryor, known for his bravado and cocky attitude, then make him play against type? The filmmakers decided that this Wizard did not just have to be exposed as an illusion, but had to be humiliated and degraded as well. The scenes where Dorothy confronts and belittles The Wiz illustrate the mean-spirited cruelty that permeates the entire film.

The most curious aspect of THE WIZ is trying to decipher just who it was intended for. Obviously, the material was meant to appeal to children, thus it’s strangely inappropriate “G” rating; yet the mystical, magical land of good and evil from earlier versions is transformed into a foreboding world of terror and despair. Oz seems to be an extended slum, populated by the homeless, vandals, hookers, bookies, druggies, various street people and gangs; while the Emerald City is a superficial place for shallow, pretentious phonies. While the tone of the film is juvenile — almost infantile — it all takes place in a seedy adult world that is almost prurient.

THE WIZ doesn’t just avoid childlike innocence, it seems to hold it in contempt. Garland’s Oz was basically a beautiful place where evil could be conquered with intellect, compassion, courage and the security of family and friends. The Oz that Ross treks through is basically an evil place; the message she learns is that the world stinks, so stop your whining and get used to it. The “there’s no place like home” moral remains intact, but that has little meaning if the alternative — Oz — is seen as corrupt and evil.

In THE WIZARD OF OZ, Dorothy’s Oz is a dream world version of her own life; the Witch, the Wizard and her traveling companions all have human counterparts. This makes the 1939 film a personal story. In THE WIZ, there is no apparent correlation between Oz and Dorothy’s seemingly isolated home life, the people of Oz and Dorothy’s family have no counterparts. Garland’s Dorothy escapes to Oz, but realizes the best part of Oz is already part of her. Ross’ Dorothy fears Oz and ultimately escapes from it. The inner dream world of Oz becomes an alien world of media-generated stereotypes. THE WIZARD OF OZ is a fantasy; THE WIZ is a horror story.

Obviously reworking the basic story to accommodate an all-black cast wasn’t done just to utilize a different style of music. As such, the film becomes a showcase for a panorama of African-American stereotypes, many of them negative. But rather than debunking racist cliches, the film embraces them. Sleep inducing poppy fields are replaced with opium dens, witches become sweatshop slave drivers, flying monkeys are gang members, Munchkins are graffiti vandals and so on and so forth. As adult satire, such imagery is understandable, if lame, but the film forgets this is still a story specifically aimed at children. Just as the film was rewritten from the play to accommodate the adult Ross, the material is altered from L. Frank Baum’s books to make it adult, but not mature. It seems to be the film’s conviction that to tell the story from a black perspective it must embrace a grim urban reality, basically saying that childlike innocence cannot exist because urban living, especially for a black audience, has destroyed such a concept. A sad commentary for a children’s fantasy and an even sadder assumption about African-American life.

The irony of THE WIZ is that it is ill-conceived, cheaply melodramatic and relies on trite stereotypes; in other words, it has no brain, no heart and no courage. And ultimately it found no home, being a box office flop. And what could have been a breakthrough landmark in cinema ends up being a sad relic of political incorrectness.

Pretty much says it all, doesn’t it. I will write a little more about stuff from a film creator’s perspective.

The movie is over-packed with songs, all of them unusually long; in some cases, a character will sing two entire songs back to back, with the full length (3-4 minutes) that comes with it and accompanied by a massive production number. This wears you down, and clocking in at over 2 hours, you really feel it getting to you. The director makes excessively poor choices of framing in some cases, which leads me to believe that there were other factors involved in the choices, like street availability and time given for shots.

There are some positives, though. One is Michael Jackson’s kinetic performance. He spends the entire movie as a bumbling scarecrow, and if you watch his feet throughout the picture, he brings in a stellar display of bumbling legs, twisting feet and jerky motion. If you watch it and tune out the rest, it’s quite amazing. Another stunner is the makeup, created by Stan Winston Studios. If you pause the screen and look at the makeup for all the characters, it’s absolutely brilliant and put together well enough for these actors to dance and run around at top speed with no obvious slowdown or damage. That’s really something.

The Wiz’s shadow movie is Little Shop of Horrors, an example of taking a Broadway Musical, playing to the strengths of the cinematic medium, and producing something greater than the original. Played back to back, the differences in how to work with similar material are striking.

….uh, I do not actually recommend this.


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6 Comments

  1. I.C. says:

    Oh dear, looks like I need to watch The Wiz again. :)

  2. Krys says:

    Here’s my take on “The Wiz”. As a young black woman who saw it as a child, I have to say that I loved it and still do. There are things in the movie that I could identify with unlike the more accepted Garland version. I grew up in the inner city around those things: hooker, gangs, homeless people, etc. The message I got out of the movie was that regardless of your situation or where you come from, you can always rise above it. Dorothy (Ross) was older only because it made sense. She was afraid to step out of her comfort zone and push herself to do more than live in Harlem. As an African-American, that thought process is commonplace, especially in inner city. A lot of times, we’re told that we won’t amount to anything so there’s no need to try. Throughout the entire movie, the underlying thought is that all you need to succeed is already inside of you. You must tap into those qualities and characteristics that you have in order to come out on top. I appreciated the realness of the Wizard. Yes, in the original movie, he was a lovable and cheesy character, however, showing him vulnerable and a fraud also reiterated the fact that one doesn’t need to rely on “magical, mystical” isms to make it in life, what you need is inside.

    Perhaps your disdain for the film is rooted in the fact that you’ve never experienced half of the scenarios that Dorothy and her friends did. You wouldn’t understand the lavishness of The Emerald City, because you haven’t encountered the lavishness of our people. You wouldn’t understand the feeling of defeat and despair, because you may have been encouraged to do whatever you wanted to do. No one told you not to try because of your skin color or your background. Perhaps, you should look beyond the cinematography and camera angles and look at the message in the story. This wasn’t meant to be like Garland’s version or the book. This wasn’t meant for those who can’t relate, hence it wasn’t released in your neighborhood. It was meant for and appreciated by those who could look into the movie and see themselves. It was meant for those who are born with strikes already against them for being black and female.

    I believe that Berry Gordy and his team of filmakers did an excellent job with this film. I love it and can probably recite all the lines from it. The gloominess is an “in-your-face” look at the ghettos, the streets, and the inner city. Perhaps, you should trek through the West Side of Chicago, Harlem, Philly, Brooklyn, Detroit ang Gary, IN in order to see what Dorothy had to push through. The message in this film is what pushed me to graduate college, pursue my Graduate degree, become an audio engineer, take up fashion design…become more than my environment. Dig deeper, gentlemen. Look for the message and don’t be so quick to criticize. Listen to the music and the lyrics rather than degrade them for their length. Music, fashion, and dance are all throughout our culture. I thought it was an excellent representation. Perhaps we shouldn’t call Dorothy mentally retarded, but scared of the world that shuns her for who she is. Dig deeper.

  3. Jason Scott says:

    Well, first of all, let me thank you for writing such an eloquent response to my posting and review reprint. Any weblog appreciates someone putting the time and effort into being a conversationalist on their site, but sometimes they don’t make that clear. So thanks for the energy.

    Obviously, I take major issue with your contention that because I’m not black, the movie is either not “for” me, or that my living in a downtrodden area would cause me to appreciate the film. I watch hundreds of films in which the locales are nothing like the life I would live, not even “replanted” stuff like basically a suburban drama in space but actual, real movies using any of a number of not-where-I-live areas and ways of life as their source. Additionally, the assumption that I have not spent any time in your checklist of “communities you must visit to spontaneously appreciate The Wiz” is borderline insulting, as I have in fact spent time in a portion of those communities. In between my time living in my parents’ house in suburbia and my current pretty-OK digs, I’ve spent my time in some pretty sketchy situations. No, I don’t think any residential requirements are the missing piece to suddenly liking “The Wiz”.

    What I think you indicate is that the film is a “touchstone”, where for you it contained elements that you were specifically inspired by, and which lifted your spirits and engaged you. This is not something I can dispute, and I’m positive that this could be the case, no matter what the film. People take inspiration from Scarface, from horror films, from music videos, from TV shows. For people, they see something in there that inspires them. But the key is, that does not excuse the fact that a movie is a sagged-out, poorly-shot, dragging pile of celluloid.

    The criticisms above are real; Diane Ross plays Dorothy horribly. The camerawork is terrible. The colors are dismal where they should be brilliant and grey where they should be stark. The songs, while well-written (after all, they were in the acclaimed broadway production) are doubled up here, and songs that were cut out of the production or one-minute themes are now full production numbers. This disdain lives in me regardless of how much time I spent in the ‘hood, and is hardly discerned by socioeconomic forces; it is simply a bad film.

    Again, I totally and entirely see how you could find things in there you didn’t see in other films at the time and were inspired. But, like an alcoholic but brilliant teacher, you can’t shield yourself from the flaws and claim there was only the good.

    Again, thanks for writing.

  4. Briscoe says:

    I usually don’t comment on blogs or on-line opinions but in this situation I believe I will. I am a professor of Visual Art and I use this film as a part of my African American in Art course as a way to ease into the plight of early African American artists. The reason that I use it is because of the rich story that is told. First. The Wiz on Broadway was a remake of the book and film. The film was a specific retelling of the story from the perspective of individuals who are dealing with the plight of being black in America at a certain time in history.
    Some things are difficult to relate to and understand when you are on the outside looking in. It’s a fact that many people have a problem accepting. Lets look at the significance of the manner in which Dorothy found the yellow brick road in the two films. What about the significance of Miss One being the good witch of the North and Glinda being the good witch of the south “oh she’s a real star”? Did we stop to think about the subway? After all, what is a subway anyway? An “Underground Railroad”. What about the “poison poppies” and the Lions’ cry out to God asking “Oh mighty Zeus. Why have you cursed this mangy beast” when he feels he has placed his people at risk as a result of his irresponsible acts (i.e. poppies used to create drugs)? What about the transformation of all of the negative influences after Evillene’s destruction. Harlem Renaissance was the point that blacks in this country began to truly recognize the beauty and worth that existed in them. Hence the transformation during the singing of “Can You Feel A Brand New Day”.
    So, I say all this to say. Can we excuse the lighting issues or the less than perfect camera angles? Can we look at this as art? Art that is perfect in it’s imperfection. Maybe the telling of the story necessitated the sacrificing of pretty for less than. It was the late seventies for heavens sake. There is a wealth of beauty in this. You or the writer of the review you have included may need to step outside of yourselves in order to see it. It would be rude and hypocritical of me to say that you or the reviewer are wrong. I just wish that you could see the importance of this film as I do.

  5. Stephenie says:

    Briscoe, I would like to thank you for your much needed input. Merwyn, even though I do not agree with your position, I do respect your thoughts and I appreciate that you are bringing attention to the film.
    The thing about art is that when you look at it from different perspectives, you see different things. When I view the Wiz, I look at it from a feminist point of view. Dorothy’s voyage is one of self-discovery, just as in Frank Baum’s version. Where it diverges from the original storyline is in its setting. The Wiz depicts African American life in the seventies. The relationships she develops with her comrades depict the stereotypes of black men that were pervasive in the seventies. If you listen carefully (to both the lyrics and to the script), you will find that the Scarecrow represents black men who have come to internalize negative images of blacks as innately inferior. They do not try to overcome their obstacles because they believe they are destined to fail due to their inadequacies. On the other hand, there is the scarecrow. The scarecrow portrays the overly-masculine man who suppresses his feelings and is unable to connect emotionally with his sexual partners. Lastly, the Lion shows us the brute black man, a man who wears a veil of aggression in order to protect himself and to keep others at a distance (so that they won’t uncover his secret shame).
    When you analyze this movie, you have to consider the political milieu of the seventies. Both the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement were at large. This presented a predicament for black women, as one seemed to condemn the other. For the purposes of capturing this tumultuous atmosphere, the directors used the soft, grainy imagery and the gloomy lighting to which you refer. The implication is that the role of women is to support men, and by doing so, they can find strength and confidence. Once this has been established, then blacks, as a nation, can find “a new day,” one of harmony and happiness.
    But, of course, this is merely my interpretation. You are entitled to a different perspective; however, when you analyze the film, watch closely and listen for the messages. I am sure if you are astute, then you will not be disappointed in what you find.
    Thanks for watching the film and for listening to my review.

  6. ElaineHD says:

    I agree with some of your statements. I loved Michael and Ted as the scarecrow and lion, but that was about it. There were too many changes from the play, which I LOVED enough to see 4 times. If I had not been so familiar with the play, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more. Go on You Tube and see parts of the play, with Stephanie Mills. There is a link that shows how you can buy the play on DVD.The quality is poor (bootleg), but it is worth the $20.00,if you were lucky enough to have seen the play during its initial run.