ⓘ The Wiz (film)


ⓘ The Wiz (film)

The Wiz is a 1978 American musical adventure fantasy film produced by Universal Pictures and Motown Productions, and released by Universal Pictures on October 24, 1978. A reimagining of L. Frank Baums classic 1900 childrens novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz featuring an all-black cast, the film was loosely adapted from the 1974 Broadway musical of the same name. It follows the adventures of Dorothy, a shy, twenty-four-year-old Harlem schoolteacher who finds herself magically transported to the urban fantasy Land of Oz, which resembles a dream version of New York City. Befriended by a Scarecrow, a Tin Man and a Cowardly Lion, she travels through the city to seek an audience with the mysterious Wiz, who they say is the only one powerful enough to send her home.

Produced by Rob Cohen and directed by Sidney Lumet, the film stars Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Theresa Merritt, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne and Richard Pryor. Its story was reworked from William F. Browns Broadway libretto by Joel Schumacher, and Quincy Jones supervised the adaptation of Charlie Smalls and Luther Vandross songs for it. A handful of new songs, written by Jones and the songwriting team of Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, were added for it.

Upon its original theatrical release, the film was a critical and commercial failure, and marked the end of the resurgence of African-American films that began with the blaxploitation movement of the early 1970s. Despite its initial failure, it became a cult classic among black audiences, Jacksons fanbase, and Oz enthusiasts. Certain aspects influenced The Wiz Live!, a live television adaptation of the musical, aired on NBC in 2015.


1. Plot

A crowded Thanksgiving dinner brings a host of family together in a small Harlem apartment, where a shy, twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher named Dorothy Gale lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Extremely introverted, she is teased by Aunt Em for never having been south of 125th Street, as she has delayed moving out to start her own, independent life as an adult.

While Dorothy cleans up after the meal, her dog, Toto, runs out the open kitchen door into a violent snowstorm. She succeeds in retrieving him but finds herself trapped in the storm. A magical whirlwind made of snow – the work of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South – materializes and transports them to the realm of Oz. Released by the snowstorm, Dorothy smashes through an electric "Oz" sky sign as she descends from the atmosphere, and which falls upon and kills Evermean, the Wicked Witch of the East who rules Munchkinland. As a result, she frees the Munchkins who populate the playground into which she lands; they had been transformed into graffiti by Evermean for painting the playground walls.

Dorothy soon meets the Munchkins main benefactress, Miss One, the Good Witch of the North, a magical "numbers runner" who gives Evermeans pretty charmed silver slippers to her by teleporting them onto Dorothys feet. However, Dorothy declares she doesnt want the shoes and desperately just wants to get home to Aunt Em. Miss One urges her to follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City and seek the help of the mysterious "Wiz" who she believes holds the power to send Dorothy back to Harlem. After telling her to never take the silver shoes off, Miss One and the Munchkins disappear and Dorothy is left to search for the road on her own.

The next morning, Dorothy happens upon a Scarecrow made of garbage and rags, and befriends him after saving him from being viciously teased and picked on by a group of humanoid crows. They discover the yellow brick road and happily begin to follow it together "Ease on Down the Road". The Scarecrow hopes the Wizard might be able to give him the one thing he feels that he lacks – a brain. Along the way to the Emerald City, Dorothy, Toto and the Scarecrow meet the Tin Man in an abandoned early 20th-century amusement park and the Cowardly Lion named Fleetwood Coupe DeVille, a vain dandy who hid inside one of the stone lions in front of the New York Public Library after being banished from the jungle. The Tin Man and Lion join them on their quest to find the Wizard, hoping to gain a heart and courage, respectively. En route to the Emerald City, the four adventurers must pass through a subway controlled by a crazy peddler a homeless man who controls evil puppets. Other deadly monsters all awaken and try to kill the group, but the Lion bravely rescues his friends by fighting off the monsters. They narrowly escape the subway, only to encounter flamboyant prostitutes known as the "Poppy" Girls a reference to the poppy field from the original story. They attempt to put Dorothy, Toto and the Lion into an eternal sleep with magic poppy perfume.

Finally reaching the Emerald City, the quintet gains passage into the city because of Dorothys ownership of the silver slippers. They marvel at the spectacle of the city and its sophisticated, fashion-forward dancers. They are granted an audience with the Wiz, who lives at the very top of the Towers. He appears to them as a giant fire-breathing metallic head. He will only grant their wishes if they kill the sister of the Wicked Witch of the East, Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West, who runs a sweatshop in the underground sewers of Oz. Before they can reach her domain, Evillene learns of their quest to kill her and sends out the Flying Monkeys a motorcycle gang to keep them at bay.

After a long chase, the Flying Monkeys succeed in capturing their targets and bring them back to Evillene. Vengeful for Dorothy having killed her sister, she dismembers the Scarecrow, flattens the Tin Man, and hangs the Lion up by his tail in hopes of making Dorothy give her the silver shoes. When she threatens to throw Toto into a fiery cauldron, Dorothy nearly gives in until the Scarecrow hints to her to activate a fire sprinkler switch, which she does. The sprinklers put out the fire but also melt Evillene who in which is allergic to water. She is flushed down into her throne, the lid of which slams shut like a toilet. With Evillene finally gone, her spells lose their power: the Winkies are freed from their permanent costumes revealing attractive humans underneath and their sweatshop tools disappear. They break into song-and-dance "Everybody Rejoice" and praise Dorothy as their emancipator. The Flying Monkeys give her and her friends a triumphant ride back to the Emerald City.

Upon arriving, the quartet takes a back door into the Wizards quarters and discovers that he is a "phony". The "great and powerful Oz" is actually Herman Smith, a failed politician from Atlantic City, New Jersey, who was transported to Oz when a balloon he was flying to promote his campaign to become the city dogcatcher was lost in a storm. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are distraught that they will never receive their respective brain, heart, and courage, but Dorothy makes them realize that they already have had these things all along. Just as it seems as if she will never be able to get home, Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, appears and implores her to find her way home by searching within and using the magic of the silver slippers. After thanking Glinda and saying goodbye to her friends, she breaks into a song about home, afterwards she clicks her heels together three times. She is then back near home with Toto in her arms and walks into the apartment.


2. Cast

  • Nipsey Russell as Tin Man
  • Cissy Houston uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Patti Austin uncredited as The Wiz Singers Childrens Choir / The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Thelma Carpenter as Miss One the Good Witch of the North
  • Mabel King as Evillene the Wicked Witch of the West
  • Glory Van Scott as Rolls Royce Lady
  • Grady Tate uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Charles Collins uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Luther Vandross uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Billie Allen as Aunt Ems Party
  • Richard Pryor as Herman Smith/The Wiz
  • Tom Bahler uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Michael Jackson as Scarecrow
  • Ron Dante uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Ted Ross as Cowardly Lion/Fleetwood Coupe DeVille
  • Theresa Merritt as Shelby Gale/Aunt Em
  • Roberta Flack uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Willie C. Carpenter as Aunt Ems Party
  • Stanley Greene as Uncle Henry
  • Tata Vega uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Quincy Jones uncredited as Emerald City the Pianist
  • Bill Walker uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch of the South
  • Janet Wright uncredited as The Wiz Singers Adult Choir voice
  • Diana Ross as Dorothy Gale
  • Robin Givens uncredited as Guest at Aunt Ems Party
  • Mariann Aalda as Aunt Ems Party
  • Clinton Jackson as Green Footman #1
  • Johnny Brown as Aunt Ems Party

3.1. Production Pre-production and development

The Wiz was the eighth feature film produced by Motown Productions, the film/TV division of Berry Gordys Motown Records label. Gordy originally wanted the teenaged future R&B singer Stephanie Mills, who had played the role on Broadway, to be cast as Dorothy. When Motown star Diana Ross asked Gordy if she could be cast as Dorothy, he declined, saying that Ross - then 33 years old - was too old for the role. Ross went around Gordy and convinced executive producer Rob Cohen at Universal Pictures to arrange a deal where he would produce the film if Ross was cast as Dorothy. Gordy and Cohen agreed to the deal. Pauline Kael, a film critic, described Rosss efforts to get the film into production as "perhaps the strongest example of sheer will in film history."

After film director John Badham learned that Ross was going to play the part of Dorothy, he decided not to direct the film, and Cohen replaced him with Sidney Lumet. Of his decision not to direct The Wiz, John Badham recalled telling Cohen that he thought Ross was "a wonderful singer. Shes a terrific actress and a great dancer, but shes not this character. Shes not the little six-year-old girl Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz." Though 20th Century Fox had financially backed the stage musical, they ended up exercising their first refusal rights to the film production, which gave Universal an opening to finance the film. Initially, Universal was so excited about the films prospects that they did not set a budget for production.

Joel Schumachers script for The Wiz was influenced by Werner Erhards teachings and his Erhard Seminars Training "est" movement, as both Schumacher and Ross were "very enamored of Werner Erhard". "Before I knew it," said Rob Cohen, "the movie was becoming an est-ian fable full of est buzzwords about knowing who you are and sharing and all that. I hated the script a lot. But it was hard to argue with other than to make certain we didnt use anything from it. They made a brilliant movie, and even though our concept is different – theyre Kansas, were New York; theyre white, were black, and the score and the books are totally different – we wanted to make sure that we never overlapped in any area."

Michael Jackson, a former Motown star and close friend of Diana Ross, was cast as the Scarecrow. By the start of development on The Wiz in 1977, he and his brothers The Jacksons, had left Motown for Epic Records after the release of their tenth album Moving Violation, though Jackson had yet to make a solo album since his fourth album Forever, Michael. Rob Cohen, head of Motown Productions, thought Jackson would be perfect for the role of the Scarecrow, and approached Berry Gordy with the idea, who agreed, though director Sidney Lumet was harder to convince. Lumet wanted Jimmie Walker, star of CBS-TV’s Good Times, telling Cohen" Michael Jackson’s a Vegas act. The Jackson 5’s a Vegas act.” Quincy Jones was also skeptical of Jackson, but after Cohen arranged a meeting, flying 19-year-old Jackson to New York, Lumet and Jones saw the qualities that Cohen saw. Jacksons father, Joseph Jackson, was wary of the project and saw it as a threat to the Jacksons group cohesion. Cohen moved Michael and his sister La Toya Jackson into a Manhattan apartment, allowing him to be on his own for the first time. During the production, he became a frequent visitor to New Yorks famous Studio 54. Jackson was dedicated to the Scarecrow role, and watched videotapes of gazelles, cheetahs and panthers in order to learn graceful movements for his part. The long hours of uncomfortable prosthetic makeup by Stan Winston did not bother him. During the production of the film, Jackson asked Quincy Jones who he would recommend as a producer on a yet unrecorded solo album project. Jones, impressed by Jacksons professionalism, talent and work ethic on the film, offered to be producer of what would become Off The Wall 1979, then later on the hugely successful albums Thriller 1982 and Bad 1987.

Ted Ross and Mabel King were brought in to reprise their respective roles from the stage musical, while Nipsey Russell was cast as the Tin Man. Lena Horne, mother-in-law to Lumet during the time of production, was cast as Glinda the Good Witch, and comedian Richard Pryor portrayed The Wiz.


3.2. Production Principal photography

The Wiz was filmed at Astoria Studios in Queens, New York. The decaying New York State Pavilion from the 1964 New York Worlds Fair was used as the set for Munchkinland, Astroland at Coney Island was used for the Tinman scene with The Cyclone as a backdrop, while the World Trade Center served as the Emerald City. The scenes filmed at the Emerald City were elaborate, utilizing 650 dancers, 385 crew members and 1.200 costumes. Costume designer Tony Walton enlisted the help of high fashion designers in New York City for the Emerald City sequence, and obtained exotic costumes and fabric from designers such as Oscar de la Renta and Norma Kamali. Albert Whitlock created the films visual special effects, while Stan Winston served as the head makeup artist.

Quincy Jones was the musical supervisor and music producer for the film. He later wrote that he initially did not want to work on the film, but did it as a favor to Lumet. The film production marked Jones first time working with Jackson, and Jones would later produce three hit albums for Jackson: Off the Wall 1979, Thriller 1982 and Bad 1987. Jones recalled working with Jackson as one of his favorite experiences from The Wiz, and spoke of Jacksons dedication to his role, comparing his acting style to Sammy Davis, Jr. Jones had a brief cameo during the "Gold" segment of the Emerald City sequence, playing what looks like a fifty-foot grand piano.


4.1. Release Box office

The Wiz proved to be a commercial failure, as the $24 million production only earned $13.6 million at the box office. Though prerelease television broadcast rights had been sold to CBS for over $10 million, in the end, the film produced a net loss of $10.4 million for Motown and Universal. At the time, it was the most expensive film musical ever made. The films failure steered Hollywood studios away from producing the all-black film projects that had become popular during the blaxploitation era of the early to mid-1970s for several years.


4.2. Release Home video

The film was released on VHS home video in 1989 by MCA/Universal Home Video with a reissue in 1992 and was first broadcast on television on CBS on May 5, 1984 edited to 100 minutes, to capitalize on Michael Jacksons massive popularity at the time. It continues to be broadcast periodically on networks such as BET, TVOne, BET Soul, and was the inaugural broadcast on the Bounce TV digital broadcast network. The Wiz is often broadcast on Thanksgiving Day attributed to the opening scene of Dorothys family gathered for a Thanksgiving dinner.

The film was released on DVD in 1999; a remastered version entitled The Wiz: 30th Anniversary Edition was released in 2008. Extras on both DVD releases include a 1978 featurette about the films production and the original theatrical trailer. A Blu-ray version was released in 2010.


4.3. Release Critical reception

Critics panned The Wiz upon its October 1978 release. Many reviewers directed their criticism at Diana Ross, who they believed was too old to play Dorothy. Most agreed that what had worked so successfully on stage simply did not translate well to the screen. Hischaks Through the Screen Door: What Happened to the Broadway Musical When It Went to Hollywood criticized "Joel Schumachers cockamamy screenplay", and called "Believe in Yourself" the scores weakest song. He described Diana Rosss portrayal of Dorothy as: "cold, neurotic and oddly unattractive"; and noted that the film was "a critical and box office bust". In his work History of the American Cinema, Harpole characterized the film as "one of the decades biggest failures", and, "the years biggest musical flop". The Grove Book of Hollywood noted that "the picture finished off Diana Rosss screen career", as the film was Rosss final theatrical feature. In his 2004 book Blockbuster, Tom Shone referred to The Wiz as "expensive crud". In the book Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood, the author criticized the script, noting, The Wiz was too scary for children, and too silly for adults." Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in the 1939 The Wizard of Oz film, did not think highly of The Wiz, stating The Wiz is overblown and will never have the universal appeal that the classic MGM musical has obtained."

Jacksons performance as the Scarecrow was one of the only positively reviewed elements of the film, with critics noting that Jackson possessed "genuine acting talent" and "provided the only genuinely memorable moments." Of the results of the film, Jackson stated: "I dont think it could have been any better, I really dont." In 1980, Jackson stated that his time working on The Wiz was "my greatest experience so far. Ill never forget that." The film received a positive critique for its elaborate set design, and the book American Jewish Filmmakers noted that it "features some of the most imaginative adaptations of New York locales since the glory days of the Astaire-Rogers films." In a 2004 review of the film, Christopher Null wrote positively of Ted Ross and Richard Pryors performances. However, Nulls overall review of the film was critical, and he wrote that other than the song "Ease on Down the Road", "the rest is an acid trip of bad dancing, garish sets, and a Joel Schumacher-scripted mess that runs 135 agonizing minutes." A 2005 piece by Hank Stuever in The Washington Post described the film as "a rather appreciable delight, even when its a mess", and felt that the singing – especially Diana Rosss – was "a marvel".

The New York Times analyzed the film within a discussion of the genre of blaxploitation: "As the audience for blaxploitation dwindled, it seemed as if Car Wash and The Wiz might be the last gasp of what had been a steadily expanding black presence in mainstream filmmaking." The St. Petersburg Times noted, "Of course, it only took one flop like The Wiz 1978 to give Hollywood an excuse to retreat to safer i.e., whiter creative ground until John Singleton and Spike Lee came along. Yet, without blaxploitation there might not have been another generation of black filmmakers, no Denzel Washington or Angela Bassett, or they might have taken longer to emerge." The Boston Globe commented, "the term black film should be struck from the critical vocabulary. To appreciate just how outmoded, deceptive and limiting it is, consider the following, all of which have been described as black films." and characterized The Wiz in a list which also featured 1970s films Shaft 1971, Blacula 1972, and Super Fly 1972.

Despite its lack of critical or commercial success in its original release, The Wiz became a cult classic, especially because it features Michael Jackson in his first starring theatrical film role. Jackson later starred in films such as Disneys Captain EO in 1986, the anthology film Moonwalker in 1988 and the posthumous documentary This Is It in 2009. With Lena Hornes death in 2010, Diana Ross is the last surviving "Main Cast" member of the film.

As of August 2019, The Wiz holds a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes from 33 reviews, with the consensus; "This workmanlike movie musical lacks the electricity of the stage version and its cinematic inspiration, but its bolstered by strong performances by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson."