Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Wiz (1978)

It’s easy to forget that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has over a dozen sequels penned by L. Frank Baum.  In fact, when he wrote the book, he intended it to be just the one book.  I don’t think he could have seen the countless radio, TV, film and stage adaptations that followed.  The 1939 film with Judy Garland is probably the most famous, but I do remember seeing other movies based on the works.  One such movie was Return to Oz, which was based on two of the sequels.

Another that I vaguely recall seeing was The Wiz.  The Wiz is based on a stage play of the same name.  (Well, the full title was:  The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical "Wonderful Wizard of Oz".)  The play opened in 1974 in Baltimore and made its way to Broadway in 1975.   The Wiz was released in 1978 with only Mabel King and Ted Ross making the transition.

I should warn you that I’m not going to worry about spoilers.  This movie follows the 1939 movie fairly closely.  (I was born in 1976, so I’m too young to have seen any of the early stage productions.)  In this case, Dorothy is an  African-American woman living with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry in Harlem.  Aunt Em wants her niece to get a better job teaching, but Dorothy (played by Diana Ross) is happy where she is.

After Thanksgiving dinner, her dog, Toto, runs outside into a snowstorm.  Dorothy goes after him only to be picked up by a tornado and taken to Oz, where she promptly kills the Wicked Witch of the East, freeing the Munchkins.  Dorothy is told by the Good Witch of the North to follow The Yellow Brick Road, which she has trouble finding at first.  With the help of the Scarecrow, played here by Michael Jackson, she’s able to find her way.

They make it to an abandoned amusement park, where they find Tin Man, played by Nipsey Russell.  This leaves only The Cowardly Lion, who is played by Ted Ross, to be found in front of the New York Public Library.  The four of them head towards The Emerald City, each wanting something different.  (Again, there are no surprises if you’ve seen the 1939 movie or read the book.  Dorothy, of course, is looking for a way home.  Scarecrow wants a brain, despite being quite intelligent.)

When they make it to The Emerald City, they’re sent to kill the Wicked Witch of the West, who is running a sweat shop.  Instead of using a bucket of water, Dorothy is able to pull a fire alarm, causing the Wicked Witch to melt and thus saving the day.  Upon returning, The Wiz, played by Richard Pryor, is revealed to be a fraud.  This isn’t to say that Dorothy doesn’t go home.  The slippers she had on all along could have brought her back at any time.

The Wiz didn’t do so well in the theaters.  This is despite the movie having a lot of talent.  (This may, however, explain why the movie did eventually gain a cult following.)  It is strange to see an older Dorothy, but it’s not completely out of line.  SyFy’s Tin Man also had an adult in the Dorothy role.

I would say that the movie is in line with the book; each of the characters wants something that they already have.  Ross did come across as meek and scared, which would be appropriate.  The story is partially about her finding herself.  The book had a lot more to it, but choices do have to be made.  The movie still comes in at over two hours.

I’m not a fan of musicals, per se.  However, I did like the songs.  The dancing was well choreographed and the songs were well written.  (One thing I remembered from watching the as a kid was one of the songs.)  One thing I noticed was that Toto had a very small part in the movie.  In many of the scenes, Toto is noticeably absent.  He only appears as the group is leaving.  Even then, it takes him a few seconds to follow.  Dorothy has an almost manic-depressive attitude towards her beloved dog.  One minute, she’s hysterical that something might happen to Toto.  Next, she pays no attention to him.  I had to wonder if maybe the dog playing Toto was difficult to deal with.

The costumes looked like what you’d expect of a Broadway musical.  Tin Man has some metallic components, but it appears that most of his costume is makeup and wardrobe.  The same goes for Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow.  The subway scene was a little surreal.  The group is attacked by trash cans and support columns.  I don’t know if these were actors wearing costumes or if they were mostly special effects.  There were a few parts that I’m sure were actors.  That could not have been easy for them.

I enjoyed watching the movie.  It’s almost as old as I am and Oz bears an intentional resemblance to New York, so some aspects are lost on me.  I’m also coming into the movie having seen other movies based on the book, which I’ve also read.  There was one big question I had, other than Toto’s recurring absence.  What was the deal with Scarecrow and his endless supply of strangely appropriate quotations?

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