‘The Wiz’ or — Quease On Down The Road?

I arrived at my friend’s flat for movie night last night and was very kindly made a cup of tea on arrival.

“Thank you. So what film have you picked for us to watch tonight?” I asked him.
“Oh, something wonderful. It’s a film that will put all of us in a gloriously good mood.”
“Cool.” I said. “What it is?”
“It’s called ‘The Wiz’.”
I spat my tea out over the coffee table.
“You’ve seen it? And I’ll get you a cloth.”
“Years ago,” I replied, “But I can still remember it well. But don’t worry — I won’t give my opinion on it until we’ve all watched it.”

If you haven’t seen ‘The Wiz’ (1978) then it is an all-black version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’… produced by Rob Cohen… and written by Joel Schumacher (?!)… and directed by Sidney Lumet (??!!!!!) so yeeeeahhh. But, apart from that, it is crammed with some of the best African-American talent of the day: it stars Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as The Scarecrow and Richard Pryor as the Wiz and many others. It’s a story we all know and love and, with such talent, how could it go wrong?

Turns out the answer is “BIG TIME!” as ‘The Wiz’ is absolutely fucking god-awful and a legitimate seizure-inducing mess. Where to even begin?!

Firstly, revisiting it, I couldn’t figure out if the film was cheap as hell or had so much money thrown at it that the production design had crossed some bizarre visual event horizon where taste and aesthetics had become utterly meaningless (turns out it was the latter as this film cost a shit load!). It is a down-right ugly looking movie at times despite a lot of talent behind the camera (Albert Whitlock; Stan Winston etc), even if it does have some moments of real inventiveness going on.

Then there’s the directing. Why, in the name of buggering barnacles, did anyone think Sidney Lumet was the ideal person to helm this extravagant musical? Who thought — “We need energy and kitsch elan for this project. Someone who can direct large-scale dance numbers… so let’s get the guy who made ‘Serpico’ (1973) and Network’ (1976)!” I love Lumet and he is great at dialogue-heavy, pressure cooker, actor driven scripts but NOT when it comes to Michael Jackson being attacked by dancing trash-cans. Lumet also hardly ever moves the camera and keeps it at quite a distance from the action rather than getting stuck right in the middle of it, which dance numbers need. It just feels so detached and remote, like some guy sitting at the edge of the disco floor watching everybody else boogie.

Plus the pacing to this movie is appalling, not just with the tempo but also with the sudden, lurching, whiplash changes in tone and emotion. One minute everyone is happy and easing on down the road, the next they’re all having nervous breakdowns and weeping… then they’re totally fine and dancing again and the cycle just repeats and repeats for over TWO HOURS!

The songs are monotonous and leap in at the most unexpected moments, often hot on the heels of whatever tedious tune had immediately gone before with no break to adjust. Seriously, how can something be funky AND boring at the same time? Yet, somehow, ‘The Wiz’ manages to achieve remarkable feat.

Yet the biggest issue in ‘The Wiz’ is, by far, Diana Ross as Dorothy as instead of her character being a frightened young girl she is now a 24 year old school teacher and played by someone who is 33 years old! We can empathise with Dorothy being scared and terrified by Oz and its denizens when she is a little girl but when she is a fully grown adult and acting the way she does then Dorothy comes across as a neurotic, mentally unstable mess who should most certainly be institutionalised. I truly hated her, I really did, with the only person coming across as even more annoying and objectionable being Richard Pryor as The Wiz himself whom I can only describe as grating and irritating beyond belief.

Where there any positives? Well, the production design was interesting at times in a fucked-up, “what the hell is going on” sort of way. Plus the film does pick up a little when we finally get to the Wicked Witch of the West. But that also highlights another huge problem — the wicked witch doesn’t appear until near the end meaning there is NO threat or tension to Dorothy and the gang’s journey for the rest of the movie. They just lurch from one incident to the next. In the original the witch was on their case from the very start giving the entire plot a cool impetus and drive.

Is ‘The Wiz’ worth a watch? No, absolutely not. Avoid. The only reason to see it is out of morbid curiosity to witness the movie that put the nail in the coffin to the blaxploitation craze of the 70’s.

At least my friends got to understand why I spat my tea out when I arrived.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.