Scarecrow: Barnum said there’s a sucker born every minute.
Beware: Spoilers may follow.
In 1974 Broadway did a take on the classic Wizard of Oz story integrating modern African American culture and it was beloved by black and white audiences alike in its attempt to stay true to the original story while giving a new spin. About four years later we got a movie adaptation of the play and sadly the result did not come close to the magic of the 1939 movie or even the stage adaptation.
The story involves Harlem schoolteacher Dorothy (Diana Ross) in attempt to save her dog Toto from a storm ends up in the fantasy world of Oz. After accidentally killing the Wicked Witch of the East the munchkins tell her of the Wiz who can help send her home. As she goes about to search for the Wiz she meets the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) who desires a brain, the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) in search of a heart, and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) in search of courage.
The story makes a big change by putting Dorothy in her 30s and the movie’s portrayal of Oz looks more like Manhattan. The story’s “no place like home” message is completely backwards with Aunty Em pressuring Dorothy into moving outside her safe haven and the dark dangerous world of Oz doesn’t help the message given that Dorothy is in some kind of danger at every turn. There’s no real meaning to go to Oz here given that it’s a death trap without enchantment at every turn. And on top of that she returns back home at the end of it, all which confuses the message of needing to venture outside her comfort zone given. The movie has a grand scale and good looking sets and costumes but the way the movie is shot makes it devoid of life and hard to get invested in any of the story and characters. One of if not the play’s most popular song, Ease on Down the Road for instance, is shot so far away from the actors with their backs turned that it’s hard to feel any sense of joy with the actors. In attempt to draw parallels between the world of Oz and Dorothy’s world there are many questionable choices made such as making the flying monkeys into a motorcycle gang or having the Wicked Witch run a sweatshop.
The performances are a mixed bag. Diana Ross tries to play Dorothy as this scared and innocent child she is supposed to be but this is a portrayal coming from a grown woman and it results in her take on the character being rather odd. Richard Pryor as the Wiz is mostly wasted, as his comedic talents don’t synergize well with the tone of the movie at all. The actors for the Dorothy’s companions such as Nipsey Russell as Tin Man, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, and Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion deliver some charismatic performances. But by far the best part of this movie goes to Mabel King as the Wicked Witch. Even though she doesn’t appear until the end she is just so delightfully evil and gives such a unique flavor to her performance.
Then there’s the music and to the movie’s credit many of the songs are well sung and for the most part are well choreographed and energetic (particularly during the Brand New Day song and the No Bad News song). However there are more songs that aren’t in the play than those that are in the play. And even the songs at their best drag on. There’s not much spacing between them and what you have is this awkward and empty void in the story if you were to take the songs out.
The Wiz very much fails to understand what made its Broadway counterpart so compelling. The movie was a huge flop around the time and many of the changes made in this movie were not for the better. The magical and fantasy-like world of Oz is just so dark and lifeless that it’s hard to feel any sort of wonder or be entraced by any of it. The direction for this movie was not good and it comes at the price of the movie’s better aspects. Many people have fond memories of this movie and I’d be lying if I said some of the songs weren’t well done. But good music does not equal good movie. If I want the soundtrack I’ll gladly listen to it on its own.