“Success… Fame and fortune… They’re all illusions…”
“The Wiz,” the 1978 movie musical.
“You Can’t Win,” also seems sadly prophetic, as Jackson croons: “You can’t win/ You can’t break even/ And you can’t get out of the game… / You get in/ Way over your head/ And you’ve only got yourself to blame…”)
Universal Studios Home Entertainment reissued “The Wiz” a year ago on DVD in a “30th Anniversary Edition” with a bonus soundtrack CD.
“The Wiz” reminds us that the post-Jackson 5, pre-“Thriller”.
“The Wiz” reportedly cost $24 million, making it the most expensive film musical ever made up to that time. It earned only $13.5 million at the box office but had no trouble earning the enmity of critics.
“The Wiz” was scripted by Joel Schumacher, who had just written “Car Wash”
“The Wiz” opens at Thanksgiving in Harlem, where Dorothy is helping prepare a holiday meal for a large crowd of kinfolk. Played by the 34-year-old Ross, Dorothy is a lonely kindergarten teacher; she’s “24 years old and never been south of 125th Street,” according to worried Aunt Emma (Theresa Merritt).
When Dorothy chases her little dog, Toto, out into the blizzardy streets, she is swept up by a snowy whirlwind — apparently created by the magical breath of Glinda the Good (Lena Horne) — and deposited on a stylized urban playground in the land of Oz, where graffitied silhouettes peel themselves from the wall and introduce themselves as Munchkins. They tell the scared Dorothy that “the Wiz” may be able to “cipher” a way for her to return home.
Following a sometimes crumbling yellow brick road through an almost apocalyptic-looking urban landscape (Albert Whitlock’s special effects and matte paintings are the highlights of the movie), Dorothy meets such characters as the Scarecrow (“ol’ garbage guts” is stuffed with shredded books, from which he plucks inspirational quotations); the Coney Island Tinman (created from beer cans and other junk), who describes himself as a “two-bit carny hustler” (“Nobody’s home in Soulville,” he says, thumping his empty chest); and the Cowardly Lion, who had disguised himself as one of the stone lions outside the New York public library (and whose real name is “Fleetwood Coupe de Ville,” we are told). Ted Ross, a Tony-winner for his stage performance — and just about the only actor carried over from the Broadway production — plays the Lion.
Dorothy also encounters the “Flying Monkeys,” depicted as weird, motorcycle-riding simians; a group of pimped-out, Scarecrow-tormenting crows, possibly based on the zoot-suited black crows in Disney’s “Dumbo” (Dorothy calls these crows — played by dancers, with feathery hands and pointy beaks — “jive turkeys”); Evillene (Mabel King, also a Broadway cast member, who played “Mama” Thomas on the sitcom “What’s Happening!!”), a plump wicked witch covered in outlandish baubles who runs a sweat shop; and, eventually, the Wiz (Richard Pryor), who is revealed to be “plain old Herman Smith of Atlantic City… a second-rate politician from District 7.”
Some people interpreted L. Frank Baum’s original 1900 novel, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” as a political metaphor for its times; “The Wiz” is definitely symbolic. As she travels the yellow brick road, Dorothy and her friends have to overcome fantasy versions of what are presented as particular threats to the black community: ignorance (the crows disdain the book learning that the Scarecrow pulls from his insides); vice (the poison poppies of the 1939 movie are re-invented as “Poppy Love,” a neon-lit district of sex clubs and dancing prostitutes); exploitation (the menial work and slave conditions of Evillene’s sweat shop); and what Dorothy calls “negative thinking.” The musical numbers intended to address these themes — “If You Believe in Yourself,” for example — are rather dully staged. The less instructional songs are much more exciting, including the hit, “Ease on Down the Road,” and “Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day,” created by Luther Vandross for the film.
Michael Jackson (whose clownish Scarecrow wears a bulbous nose and a Jay Leno-esque chin, courtesy of Stan Winston’s makeup effects department). An inventive and original dancer, Jackson doesn’t get many chances to shine; instead, he has to be content with executing the occasional rubber-limbed wobble or look-at-me spin during Lumet’s many group shots.
The most memorable scene in “The Wiz” may be the scary (for little kids, at least) subway sequence, in which Dorothy and company are menaced by fanged garbage cans and snaky electrical wires that might have escaped from a Sid & Marty Krofft production. As a nightmare of subway anxiety, I’ll take this over the remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3.” The most memorable shots in “The Wiz,” however, are the briefly seen images of the Oz-ified Manhattan. In one shot, the skyline contains five Chrysler Buildings; in another, the sun that rises over the Big Apple is revealed to be a literal apple. Also impressive is the depiction of the Emerald City as a sort of flashy, gigantic nightspot inhabitated by trend-following fashionistas; the scene was shot in the now-vanished massive plaza of the World Trade Center. Another production-design triumph is the “Wiz” itself”: a large metal head that suggests a stylized bust of Pryor, complete with moving ventriloquist’s dummy-style mouth.
In addition to the soundtrack CD, the DVD includes a vintage, 12-minute behind-the-scenes promotional documentary titled “Wiz on Down the Road” and a trailer.