Thursday, September 20, 2018

Remembering The Wiz Movie at 40

Original illustration by Bob McGinnis, intended for a
movie poster. From the collection of Bob Gold.
Image courtesy of Sam Milazzo.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the film adaptation of The Wiz, the Royal Blog of Oz solicited comments about the film from several Oz fans. The film was the subject of an episode of The Royal Podcast of Oz, which featured fan Garrett Kilgore. Opening is a history of the movie and thoughts from Jay.
The Wiz movie, what a loaded one this is. It was, of course, based on the stage show of the same name. A stage show that took Broadway by storm despite having a closing notice on opening night. The way I've heard the story is that Motown originally intended to have Broadway star Stephanie Mills star in the film, but when Universal offered to help fund the movie if Diana Ross was Dorothy, it was an offer Motown couldn't refuse.

Since Diana was 33, there was no way they could stick with the play's script, which hewed closely to L. Frank Baum's novel, reimagining the story through an African-American perspective. Joel Schumacher (yes, that one) was brought on to write a wholly new script, which he infused with inspiration from Werner Erhard. His connections also helped them with the massive number of costumes needed. After the Ross-switch, Saturday Night Fever director John Badham dropped out, and Serpico and Murder on the Orient Express director Sidney Lumet was brought in.

The cast was filled out with Michael Jackson (post-Jackson 5, pre-King of Pop) as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, Richard Pryor as the Wiz, Lena Horne as Glinda, Thelma Carpenter as Miss One (the Good Witch of the North), and Ted Ross and Mabel King reprised their roles from the original Broadway cast as the Cowardly Lion and Evilene (the Wicked Witch of the West), respectively. Motown producer Quincy Jones would arrange the music, dropping much of the instrumentals from the musical and creating new tunes, which used a lot of cues from a song ultimately dropped from the movie, "Is This What Feeling Gets?"

The film would eschew the story's original setting on a farm in Kansas and placed Dorothy as living with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in a Harlem apartment. Oz was depicted by many locations in New York City redressed into a bizarre fantasy world, which alone made the budget skyrocket. The yellow brick road was actually linoleum, which was also available for commercial sale.

The film was released on October 24, 1978, and wound up only bringing in $13.6 million on a $24 million budget and critics panned the movie. The failure put studios off of making all-black movies, ending the "blaxpoitation" genre and big budget musicals for a time. But it did find an audience, especially after the film began to air on television in 1984 and later when it would be released to home video, and it is available on VHS, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-Ray and digital formats.

The movie certainly has problems. One is that it's too long, running at 135 minutes. While that's comparable to how long the play would go for, it should be remembered that the play was in two acts, giving the audience a break mid-way. That time for the play also includes the overture, entr'acte music and curtain call.

A major issue with the run time is the dance scenes. Many of these extend the song sequences for far longer than they need to be, and sadly, much of the time, the fact that you're seeing these dances filmed takes away a lot of the energy the performers were giving off. The first time Dorothy and the Scarecrow sing "Ease On Down The Road" features a big problem as instead of using multiple angles, the two are filmed from behind, the scene panning into a large wide shot.

The movie also throws off the pacing of the original show by having the Tin Man's two songs "Slide Some Oil To Me" and "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?" back to back. While it's clear that "You Can't Win" shows off more of Michael Jackson's vocal talents, this comes at the cost of the optimistic and upbeat "I Was Born On The Day Before Yesterday." Richard Pryor didn't sing, so the Wiz's version of "If You Believe" was given to Dorothy and "So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard" and "Y'All Got It!" were cut. "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "A Rested Body Is A Rested Mind" were also dropped.

The movie also can come off as creepy. The revival of the Munchkins with no context looks and feels pretty creepy. The peddler with his puppets is just weird, and even after the subway sequence (the adaptation of the play's Kalidah chase scene), we have no idea what their deal is. The concept of turning New York City into Oz is interesting, but there's something unsettling about seeing Dorothy and her friends dance through empty streets littered with garbage bags.

The movie is actually very colorful and visually rich, but a lot of scenes take place at night, making them visually dark. When the movie was shown on TV and released to home video, the colors looked muted and a lot of the finer details disappeared into the background. It wasn't until Blu-Ray and digital HD that people viewing at home could begin to see these.

The re-framing of Dorothy as a timid introverted elementary school teacher was interesting. She's in a good job, but should be willing to take more risks and become more adventurous. Aunt Em mentions that Dorothy has been offered to take on a high school job and encourages her to move out on her own. This is a good setup, but when Dorothy sets out into Oz, her desiring to go home is puzzling. She needed to get out on her own, and now she is. I suppose she gets to go home and apply this knowledge to her life, but you forget about that during the long song sequences and with how it rarely comes up after she gets to Oz.

It's easy to see why fans of the original musical were disappointed with the movie. Movies can easily be seen by people on television and now home video, much more cheaply and conveniently than going to see a play. For a lot of people, The Wiz would be the movie, not the original show. It would not be until The Wiz Live! in 2015 that there would be another easily accessible version of The Wiz.

However, The Wiz movie has its fans, some very devoted. There's a lot of iconic talent in the cast, there's a lot of great songs, and it is inventive in many ways, even if those ways didn't win over audiences. But for African-American families, what other fantasy film offered them an adventure featuring people who looked like them? A lot of the shortcomings noted by their peers were easy to ignore in light of the fact that they had this movie that featured people who represented their lives and culture. The Wiz filled a void, and to be honest, it's a void that few other movies have filled.

I happened to first pick up a VHS copy of The Wiz in 2005, the same day that The Muppets Wizard of Oz was released to DVD. I had gone over to a store to pick up the new movie, then I went over to the library to use the internet (no home connection at that time), and then went over to a movie trading store and found the VHS.

I watched the movie with my siblings. Being a used copy, we noted that the tape resumed during the "A Brand New Day" sequence during which the Winkie slaves remove their ugly costumes. I could only imagine a prudish mother freaking out, taking the tape out and disposing of it by getting it to a movie trading store. (Coincidentally, it was at another location of the same line of stores that I purchased the movie on Blu-Ray later.)

My siblings and I weren't impressed with the movie, the running time taking a toll on us. Still, as a collector of Oz film, I held onto the tape until after I replaced it with a widescreen DVD that I ordered from a third party seller on Amazon. I would later also pick up the 30th anniversary DVD that presented the movie in anamorphic widescreen for the first time. It was not a movie I revisited often.

When I got the Blu-Ray, I decided to watch some of it to see how it looked. At the time, I was using a CRT TV, having not yet upgraded to an HDTV. Even on that, the upgrade in clarity and color was very noticeable. At one point, I decided to watch the "He's The Wiz!" sequence and wound up watching the rest of the movie.

I think my feelings shifted from disdain to acceptance to being able to see how you can enjoy the movie to finding some enjoyment. It has its flaws, and I certainly wish we could've seen the original conception of Stephanie Mills recreating her Broadway role on film, but in the end, it is what it is.
 - Jay Davis
A collection of The Wiz merchandise, courtesy Sam Milazzo.
I can remember my first viewing of The Wiz movie was in Primary school, as one of the teachers had taped it from a TV broadcast - where each time there was to be a commercial, it would use and slow down the shot of Dorothy and Toto spinning inside the blizzard - and I have so many memories from that viewing, even if they are inaccurate and the scenes in my mind are different to those in the actual film on video: I even remember the dreams I had growing up afterwards from seeing it:
* a magazine I "found" at the end of my bed with a double-page spread showing Dorothy, holding Toto in her arms and talking to Miss One, wearing fluffy pink slippers (this is because, earlier, someone thought I was talking about the OTHER movie) ... naturally when I woke up the next morning, I checked the end of my bed for the magazine, which wasn't there because it didn't exist.
* a zooming close-up on Dorothy's Silver Slippers when she returned home at the end which led to a "dance number" on the street (which was not snowed under).

I remember a friend in high school talking about the film with its changing color city lights and the Witch wanting the girl with the Silver Shoes.

The first time I read anything on the 1978 film, was a small section in The Annotated Wizard of Oz (and many other things I would eventually and gradually be exposed to and collect, or avoid).
Even before I saw it again, the image of a tall Dorothy and a short Good Witch/Miss One stayed in mind and would be remembered whenever I saw a similar thing on screen, such as Maggie and Yetta in one episode of "The Nanny" or Nicole Kidman and Shirley MacLaine in the "Bewitched" movie.

Soon as I got the DVD I loved it, even in its low, dark quality and gaps in story (especially why Glinda created the storm to abduct Dorothy in the first place) and faulty editing.  I loved this film because I resonated with them showing a grown-up Dorothy having difficulty becoming a full proper adult and resisting a change of jobs, something I am still learning to do myself.  Whenever I watch it, I find something else about it that adds depth to the detail in scene or shot, or reveals a possible new meaning of interpretation like reasons or characters that may represent a different aspect of Dorothy's personification.  Even the Blu-ray can reveal details I could never notice so clearly before.

As much as I love this film, I would be blind and foolish to not see where improvements are needed. However, while this film does severely lack proper and excellent editing and design choices (especially wasting so much time, effort and resources in costume changes for the Emerald City tri-colour number/s, when White would have been easily adjustable!), I am clever enough to know that video and TV allows us to mute, fast-forward or even adjust color settings to improve viewing - choices of which I am willing to take advantage of.

I am interested in the magazines that cover the production, but am also disappointed in the complete absence of more interesting merchandise and memorabilia, particularly the abandoned Comic treatment, as I strongly feel that this companion piece would have not only filled up blank spots in the film (especially dialogue in scenes without singing and, in particular, Dorothy's thoughts once she had returned "home") but also be a better adaptation than what "Return to Oz" got in similar form.
- Sam Milazzo
I first saw the movie on TV many years ago. I don't know how old I was. I think it's good. Though I still think Diana Ross was too old to be playing Dorothy and I thought the Tin Man's crying was annoying. (I mute at that part.) Plus, what the hell was up with the poppies looking like strippers and the Winkie guards running around in their underwear? But I bought the DVD four or five years ago.
- Sarah Crowther
I really hated it. The premise was good, it was an unique spin on the story (for the time). What killed it for me were the dance numbers that just went on and on and on. I get it, you're free and you're happy but can we please get back to the story?
- Erica Olivera
There's so much I can say on this one. One scene that sticks out for me is the first version of "Ease on Down the Road." As a child I loved seeing Dorothy and Scarecrow dancing to that. As I got older I realized just how crazy that scene was since it's friggin' Michael Jackson and Diana Ross!!! Growing up, the MGM film was the standard for Oz fun, but whenever this movie would come on TV, I would beg for the world to stop just so my young eyes could watch. It was important for me to see that race is not an issue when it comes to telling this story. This story is for everyone. Later on this became more apparent when I was in an all Filipino version of The Wiz playing the Scarecrow. The Wiz film has not become one of my favorite movies, but I can appreciate it. If anything, the recent Live version has become one of my favorite Oz adaptations.
- Eduard Cao
Pages from the unpublished comic adaptation of The Wiz,
from the collection of David Lee,
image courtesy of Sam Milazzo.
I saw this movie on my last night in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in June 1979. My family moved back to the states the next day. I don't remember knowing there was to be a movie version of The Wiz, though of course I was aware of the stage show. So it was a surprise when the title showed up on the marquee of the Officer's BOQ lyceum.

My father, my mother, and my sister watched it, too. A female friend my sister's age (Karin Kaempfer Mann) and the little girl she was baby-sitting also came along. By the time of the Munchkin scene the little girl was so terrified she and the baby-sitter left. I watched the whole thing. The seat got really, really hard.

I had never been to New York City and did not understand what the thing was with the locations or why. I still don't understand why. I wish they'd stayed closer to the stage show and just made it take place in a standard Land of Oz, not this weird, unreal New York City version of Oz.

It's also too bad they booted Stephanie Mills and cast Diana Ross as Dorothy. An older Dorothy just doesn't work for the story as they filmed it. And the other weird decisions like shifting one of the Tin Woodman's songs to give Nipsey Russell two songs in a row. He's one of the weaker singers in the cast and that whole scene's really hard to sit through.

Giving Michael Jackson the cut Winkie song in place of "I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday" makes no sense in context. Don't get me started on the nonsensical Emerald City stoplight number—although I have to say the fashions look better and better the older the movie gets.

Why in the world would they reveal the Wizard's a humbug before Dorothy discovers it for herself? What were they thinking to make such a huge anti-story, anti-interest blunder?

And there's so much more that's just anti-theatrical in the movie version. The two best scenes are still "Mean Ole Lion" and "No Bad News." Taken out of context, both are flat out great. It's telling that those are the two performances which use the stage stars in their original roles. I wish the producers and director had gotten a clue from that to help the rest of the movie.

I avoided seeing any version of the stage show for years because of this dreary, drawn-out movie version. But when I finally understood that all the bad parts of the movie were added just for the movie version, I finally went to see the stage show. Fortunately it was the early '90s tour with Stephanie Mills and Andre deShields reprising their original roles.

WOW! What a great show! So joyous and fun and Ozzy. No wonder it won so many Tonys. I don't hate the badly thought-out movie version, but it's really hard to sit through, although I find it easiest to take if I simply watch it to gawk in disbelief at the numerous moments of bad movie-making decisions.
- Eric Shanower 
To put my two cents in, I prefer the stage version of The Wiz to the movie version. Even the TV version is one, if not two steps above the movie! Fortunately, I was able to see the stage version in NYC (with family and friends) in 1976. Still have my program guide. On my first WinkieCon in 1978, I dressed up as Dorothy from the stage Wiz. Still have that photo. I would like to see Wicked for comparison, but am already convinced that the stage version of The Wiz is the best revision since the 1939 movie.
- Beverly Mendheim
I love the film. Sure Diana is too old for the role, but she plays it to the hilt. I believe her. I love the musical numbers. I only remember seeing it as aired on TV, but I had the LP and played it over and over and over. The only scene that makes no sense to me is the vendor in the subway with the weird pump up marionettes that grow and grow. What is the correlation to the original novel? The kalidahs? I dunno, it just stands out and want to just move on. I want to watch this again. I own it on Blu-Ray. It's been a year or two since I watched it last. (I also loved The Wiz Live! as well.)
- Barry Dougherty
There is so much I'd like to say about The Wiz that I don't have time for at the moment. It's an odd duck that I enjoy. There's parts I would have liked to have seen done differently, but all together I have fond memories of it. Being too young to have seen seen the Broadway version went it came out, it was my only version of The Wiz. I can't afford going to the theater now, so revivals are out. The TV version, I haven't seen.

Growing up as a POC it was the only version of Oz where everyone wasn't white and that was a big deal. It was a very large departure from a traditional Oz, and also a kid from California, the NYC version of Oz always intrigued me. New York City was a mystical place so for me that fit for a version of Oz. MGM's Oz was a dream, but things worked normally, not dream like. The Wiz was full on dream/nightmare. Things didn't make sense, things were scary, the most horrific scenes in any movie for me were the subway scenes. The peddler still gives me nightmares, I'm surprised it's not a staple Halloween costume. There's a lot I'd change, there's a lot I'd keep the same, but all and all it'll always hold a place in my cold frozen Ozzy heart.
- Aaron Almanza
The peddler sequence freaked me out as a kid. Even as an adult I won’t get too close to a subway column.
- Garrett Kilgore

Sam Milazzo presents us with another little tribute...
Dubbed "Wiz City," this video sets clips from the film to song "Kansas City" by Sneaky Sound System.

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