It’s hard to believe that The Wiz actually exists. It’s not that it’s too “out-there” an idea, or that anyone would have funded the production. It’s just that we’re talking about a musical re-telling of The Wizard of Oz starring Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor (!!!), and Nipsey Russell. Does that sound likely to you? Me, neither. I’d always heard about The Wiz, but had never seen it. You’re probably in the same boat, so is the recently-released Blu-ray worth a spot in your collection? Depends. Read on to learn why, folks…
I’ve got a confession to make: I’m not a big fan of The Wizard of Oz. Yes, yes, I know. It’s one of those “classic” Hollywood movies, one of the films that families tend to watch on the same day each year (I’ve got friends who watch it every Halloween, inexplicably)(“inexplicably” because no illicit substances are involved), but…I’m just not feeling it. I think it’s kinda cheesy, and the songs are a little grating. Frank Baum’s books are classics, of course, but the original Wizard of Oz has always struck me as a little…much. Just not my cup of tea.
As for The Wiz— the Sidney Lumet (yeah, that Sidney Lumet)-directed 1977 film– well, I’d never seen it before Collider handed me the Blu-ray version of the film. I knew that Michael Jackson was involved, playing one of the leads, and I knew that Richard Pryor was in the cast, and I had some vague notion that the film chucked out all the songs from the original Wizard of Oz in favor of Motown tunes, but beyond that, I was clueless.
As it turns out, only a few of those things were correct. The songs from the Judy Garland version have been jettisoned, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call The Wiz a “Motown” movie. It’s certainly informed by the musicians that are involved– and, for my money, the songs are a helluva lot more interesting than anything in the original (note: I know I’m in the minority on that one, yes)– and, yep, Richard Pryor and Michael Jackson are there, but that’s about all that I had right. Turns out, The Wiz is a weird, weird movie which is best looked upon as a time capsule from a very particular moment in black American culture, kind of like how Mannequin perfectly captures the white American voice of the mid-80’s. And you know what? It’s fun to watch. Moreso than the original, anyway.
The plot’s basically the same– Dorothy in Kansas, Dorothy lands in Oz, Munchkins, a “good witch”, a “bad witch”, etc– but the film looks completely unlike the images your mind conjures when you think Wizard of Oz. The film’s got a heavy industrial look, and cities, and looks much more modern than I would have suspected it to going in. The costumes are more elaborate than they were in the original, and the performers look like they’re…well, even if they’re not having a great time (Pryor looks like he wishes he were somewhere else on more than one occasion), they’re certainly giving it their all. It’s very impressive from a technical standpoint, and so much so that I’d recommend it to anyone who considers themself a film geek just so you’ve got a frame of reference for it.
For me, musicals can be sparse or elaborate, be packed with performers who are classically-trained, powerhouse singers or amateurs, taking place on sets that are boring or obnoxiously over-produced…and it won’t matter either way if the songs suck. I’ll put up with just about anything in a musical if I enjoy the songs. Are the songs catchy? Will I be humming one or two of ’em later, when I’m on my way home or standing in line at the DMV (no homo)? For instance, I thought that Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd looked incredible, that Johnny Depp sang (sung? What’s the word here?) great, that the costumes were gorgeous and that everyone involved was performing at the top of their game…but the songs didn’t stick with me, so I don’t own a copy. Chicago, though? I’ll listen to “He Had It Comin'” all day, or “Mr. Cellophane”.
On that front, The Wiz almost succeeds. Sitting here, a few days after watching the film, I’m having trouble recalling any specific lyrics or song titles that stood out for me, but I was never bored watching them being performed. A quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that my favorite song was titled “Ease on Down The Road #1”, and as I type that, I realize that I’d heard that song title long before seeing the film. So, maybe that’s the standout for most people? Who knows? All I’m saying is, the music and songs in The Wiz— from a book by William F. Brown (thanks, Wikipedia!)– are good but not great, and so for me, The Wiz doesn’t really knock it out of the park as a musical.
But as a movie? As– more specifically– an oddity? Man, does it work. You’re watching Michael Jackson– back when he was actually black– prancing around as the Scarecrow. Richard-effing-Pryor is The Wizard who is first represented on-screen as a giant, fire-spewing metal face? The friggin’ thing was written by Joel Schumacher (and, come to think of it, I think I see a little of The Wiz in Batman and Robin, at least in terms of obnoxious costuming on extras), for Chrissakes. The Flying Monkeys of the original are now a motorcycle gang. It’s just bizarre, and on that basis I would wholeheartedly recommend it.
Apparently, critics were none too kind to Diana Ross when the film debuted. She took most of the beating that came The Wiz‘ way (it bombed upon release), but I wasn’t notably perturbed by her performance here. I mean, I’ve never been the world’s biggest Diana Ross fan– maybe they had higher expectations for Ms. Ross back in the late 70’s? I dunno– but she seemed passable here. Jackson is clearly the standout, followed by Ted Ross as The Cowardly Lion. With a gun to my head, sure, I’d probably point to Ross as the weak link in the chain of leads at the heart of the film (the Tin Man– the final member of the group– is played fairly well by Russell), but she’s not “This Film is Now Ruined”-bad in it. All in all, everyone pulls their weight.
Now, I haven’t seen the film on TV or DVD, so I can’t tell you if the Blu-ray looks markedly better than it did in those incarnations, but I can tell you that the Blu-ray is razor sharp. It’s really one of the better-looking films I’ve seen lately, and I’m picky about that kinda thing (the rig in our living room is meant to blow minds, and The Wiz…well, no one’s mind was blown, but it certainly looked damn good). The colors pop off the screen, the frame depth is awesome– it’s solid. The sound is also impressive, but I’m also not nearly as stringent with my expectations in that arena as I am with the video quality. In all, I’d say it’s a great-looking (and sounding) package.
If you’re interested in seeing The Wiz for its musical pedigree, you may be disappointed. But if you’re open to seeing a gonzo interpretation of The Wizard of Oz starring Richard Pryor, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and a whole slew of bizarre twists on the original version, you’re probably going to be entertained. I wouldn’t recommend this one as a purchase, but as a rental, there are much worse ways to kill two hours of your time…and almost none of them feature Michael Jackson dressed a scarecrow.