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Film 101: The Wiz (1978)

The WizFilm 4: The Wiz (1978)

Method of viewing: DVD, beanbag sofa, many blankets (under which I was curled), and two cats.

Have I seen it before? Nope!

I like a slick Hollywood blockbuster. I’m not at all ashamed of this fact. And it’s not a qualified love/hate relationship, either; while there are certainly aspects of slick Hollywood blockbusters that piss me off I still like them. I like them a lot. And yes, I consider it my bounden duty to call them on the stuff they do badly. But that doesn’t change the fact that I just plain like ‘em.

What the hell does any of this have to do with The Wiz, the 1978 urban-set, Motown-produced retelling of The Wizard of Oz? Well, The Wiz is pretty much the exact opposite of a slick Hollywood blockbuster. I mean, really; with The Wiz we have (at times) public-access level production quality and camera work so static it’s laughable. And yet, The Wiz has something most slick Hollywood blockbusters don’t: ambition.

That is not to say that the film isn’t a mess. It is! But it’s an ambitious mess that wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s an ambitious mess that tries to do something really special and, in many ways, succeeds. And it’s an ambitious mess that never got the follow-up it deserves. But more on that anon.

(Spoilers) Dorothy is a 24-year-old elementary school teacher living with her aunt and uncle in a brownstone walkup in Brooklyn. The movie opens on a snowy evening as Dorothy’s extended family arrives for Thanksgiving dinner. We quickly learn that Dorothy is an isolated and lonely woman who can only really connect with her dog, Toto, despite her warm and loving family. That night, as she’s helping to clean up, Toto runs down the back stairs and out into the street. Dorothy follows (shrieking ‘Toto!’ as though she’s dying, weirdly) and the two get whipped up into a kind of snow-tornado and plonked down in Oz.

Dorothy, by the way, is played by Diana Ross. Ross is much older than 24 but insisted on being allowed to play her anyway because ‘Dorothy is timeless’ (true). She’s a pretty poor actress who could have used some stronger direction, but a powerful singer, so it works.

The WizThe snow-tornado is the work of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, played by Lena Horne. In one of the film’s many, many questionable decisions, Glinda is represented as hanging in the night sky, surrounded by babies. I am not making this up.

Anyway. Dorothy crashes through the ceiling (kind of like a skylight in the shape of the letters 'OZ', really) of an abandoned playground and lands in a box of yellow… stuff. It kind of looked like kernels of corn. She’s in Munchkinland, but in this Oz, Munchkinland is a graffiti-covered urban space, rather than a bucolic mini-village full of adorable lollipop guilds, etc. The Munchkins are graffiti stick-figures who peel themselves off the walls and dance around Dorothy to celebrate the face that part of the skylight-thing fell on the wicked witch of the east, killing her. The good witch of the north – a sparkly bag lady, I kid you not – appears, sings a song, gives Dorothy the silver slippers, and sends her off to the Emerald City. The whole sequence is totally bizarre but also kind of wonderful in how it appropriates the very familiar story in an entirely new setting. We also get our first glimpse of one of the movie’s many head-scratching running gags about yellow cabs – the suggestion being sort of that the cabs are the yellow brick road, or could take Dorothy straight to the Emerald City, but always go off-duty as she approaches. Hilarious if I lived in New York in 1978, perhaps.

The movie continues by hitting all the old familiar beats, but I’m going to go through them at length because they’re so incredibly weird.

the WizNext up is the Scarecrow, played by a 20-year-old Michael Jackson. Wonderfully, this Scarecrow is stuffed with garbage. Tragically, MJ only gets one solo song; the rest he sings with the other cast members. Even at age 20, and under a lot of makeup, he’s exceptionally talented and charismatic (and demonstrates a gift for physical comedy), although he too isn’t quite sure what to do with his character. He’s introduced being taunted by a group of men in some deeply unsettling costumes, nominally playing ‘crows’. Dorothy scares them off, and invites the Scarecrow along with her to the EC. They finally find the actual yellow brick road (…so, not cabs, I guess?) and dance across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. The only real advantage to the boring camera work in this film is that the song and dance sequences are filmed in only a few very long takes, which forces the audience to appreciate just how demanding filming must have been, and how good the actors are at, well, song and dance.

Moving on! The Tin Man we find in an abandoned funfair; he’s stuck under his ‘ex-wife,’ a plaster statue of an enormously fat woman he calls ‘Tiny’. (Hilarious.) He’s rusted stiff because he weeps whenever he thinks of her. Again, it’s possible that this was really funny in 1978 and doesn’t really translate in modern terms – or it’s possible that this is just an awful joke. Either way, they fix the Tin Man up (he’s a former carnival attraction himself, and made of old cans) and continue to the Emerald City. They pick up their final companion, the Cowardly Lion, outside the New York Public Library (he is – or lives inside? – one of the famous lion statues). There is, of course, a lot of singing and dancing along the way.

The WizIn this Oz, the famous poppy field isn’t a field of poppies – it’s strippers in towering Lucite heels. Because the Wicked Witch of the West doesn’t have the same presence in this version of the story as she does in the original, no one’s trying to cast a spell on our little band of heroes or stop them from getting to the Emerald City. Instead, at this point, they just get kind of sidetracked. The same is true of the forest – in the 1939 film, it’s trees throwing apples at Dorothy; in The Wiz, it’s a crazy sequence set in a subway station, where the good guys are attacked first by a guy hawking toys that come to life and then by, and I swear I’m not making this up, the tiled pillars in the ticket hall.

I can’t find a clip online, so you’re going to have to trust me on this.

When they finally get there, the Emerald City turns out to be the Lincoln Center. The courtyard outside is filled with gorgeous people in super high-fashion costumes strutting around while the Wiz himself, via loudspeaker, declares various colors the new color of Oz. Eventually Dorothy and her crew get in to see him, where he (a giant silver fire-breathing head) demands they go kill the Wicked Witch of the West. Who, up until this point, has only been mentioned once, and has had nothing whatsoever to do with anything at all. But, okay!

The WizThe Wicked Witch of the West – named, I kid you not, Evilina – rules over a sweat shop, where she marches around whipping her slaves and singing before plonking herself down on her throne… which is a giant toilet. Her flying monkeys – which are utterly horrifying half-hairy-biker and half-motorcycle monsters – capture Dorothy et al. in about 3.5 seconds and then gruesomely, rip them all to shreds to force Dorothy to give up her shoes. The Scarecrow gets cut in half, the Tin Man is flattened, and the Cowardly Lion suspended from the ceiling by his tail. And then someone tries to throw Toto into an incinerator. But good triumphs over evil, and Evilina, and the Wicked Witch is swallowed by her own toilet-throne. 

And then – I swear this really happens – all her slaves, who are wearing these appalling golliwog costumes, unzip them to reveal that they’re all gorgeous, semi-naked dancers. Cue extended dance sequence!

The WizFinally, Dorothy and co. get back to the Emerald City, where they discover that the Wiz is, actually, just Richard Pryor, a small-time politician from New Jersey who can’t help them at all. Dorothy then realizes that all her friends already have all those things they want – the Scarecrow is their tactical genius, the Tin Man loves deeply and truly, and the Cowardly Lion is really pretty brave after all. But she still can’t get home – though she realizes she misses her family. Enter Lena Horne and her babies! Lena sings a song and tells Dorothy that she’s had the power to go home whenever by clicking her whatsits, etc. Then Dorothy sings a song (in the film’s worst bit of camera work, she’s filmed against a black background, head on and from the shoulders up, and just sings to the camera for a while. It is not the least bit visually compelling.) But then she clicks her heels and winds up back on her snow-swept Brooklyn street and runs joyfully to her building, Toto at her heels. The end!

(End spoilers)

So, uh, that’s The Wiz. Totally nuts, right? And there’s a lot the film gets wrong. But I can’t help but like and respect it for everything it gets right – from Diana Ross’s insistence on the timelessness of Dorothy to her foresight in bringing Michael Jackson on board. From the wonderful and still-startling revamp of the setting from rural middle America to filthy, post-apocalyptic New York City. From the schmaltzy, soft-focus cultural paradigm of the 1939 movie to the carefully-crafted urban settings of 1978. The movie is political, occasionally overtly so (the sweatshop/golliwog sequence, for example), but it takes for granted an urban setting at particular historical moment when most kids don’t live on farms.

And that’s the greatest thing about The Wiz: it takes for granted that a fairy tale is just as home in an urban setting as a rural one, and just as robustly meaningful in a giant sprawling simulacrum of New York as on a small farm in Kansas. So many fairy tale films are set on farms, or in the countryside – it’s a tradition from the 19th century (which was itself reaching back to what people perceived as a different, better time) but it’s a tradition that we just don’t seem to be able to shake when we make films for children: that the adventures and the lessons have to come from the great outdoors, from isolated castles and sweeping planes and towering trees (and so on and so forth).

The WizBut the majority of Americans – the majority of people on earth, full stop – live in cities. And the thing about those rural/suburban films: they mythologize a life that most kids don’t live.

I have a theory about teen romcoms that I’m sure I’ll get to expound on at length later on during the course of the year but, briefly put, teen films mythologize the adolescence of their creators, not the current generation. The same problem is heightened with fairy tale films, which tend to mythologize the adolescence of our grandparents and great-grandparents (and even then, technically, they’re mythologizing the myths of that time, not that time itself!) And fairy tale films today continue that tradition, mythologizing the myths of our own myths, and the serpent consumes its own tail. Filmically, we’re stuck in a rut celebrating an escapist version of America that never existed, creating fairy tales about fairy tales. Even those entirely self-aware ones don't fully commit to their conceits – like Enchanted, which tiptoes towards recontextualizing the Disney paradigm for a modern, urban world before freaking out and running back to forests and enchanted castles and hooray-for-marriage! endings.

On the one hand, it’s fascinating that these mythologies remains so robust that they're inescapable (eight decades after The Wizard of Oz hit cinemas); on the other, depressing, because a gentle revisionist film like The Wiz – which makes a completely meaningful response to that mythology – just doesn’t have the power of the original. In part, yes, because it’s not a great film. But it feels like it didn’t have any effect at all; consider, for example, 2012’s wretched Oz the Great and Powerful, which speaks entirely to the old ideas and completely, utterly, ridiculously ignores everything from The Wiz to the much more popular and successful, but no less revisionist, Wicked.

The WizThe point being that a film like The Wiz is ambitious and unusual because it takes a pillar of the great American mythological construct – the sainted Wizard of Oz – and tries to adapt it into something a modern audience can respond to and relate to. There are no forests, no flying monkeys, and no farms because those things don’t mean anything concrete anymore. Not to your average city-dwelling kid, not to her parents and grandparents, not to her peers. 

Hookers, Victims & Doormats: Dorothy’s pretty cool, though Diana Ross really isn’t a great actress. The other female characters are minor, and there’s a depressing fat-lady joke.

Update: edited for clarity on 20 January 2014.

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