[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]
Few four-word concepts would seem as predestined for American canonization as “Motown Wizard of Oz,” and yet I can’t recall anyone—critics, friends, fellow Hitsville and classic soul aficionados—ever recommending the film version of Charlie Smalls’s 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz. If only by default, this movie should be remembered at least as a curio in the career of one of its many notable contributors—Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, Ashford and Simpson, Sidney Lumet, Quincy Jones, and Joel Schumacher among them.
I wish I could report that The Wiz deserves better than this cultural lacuna, but alas: This is a certifiable turkey, one of those doomed “star-studded” productions where a football team’s worth of talent can’t overcome the fact that nobody’s doing what feels natural. Everyone, particularly Ross, who, by all accounts, was the project’s true auteur, seems so amazed by the virtue and capital-I Importance of their undertaking that even the lighthearted numbers feel leaden. As Dorothy, a put-upon Harlem schoolteacher who’s “never been below 125th St.,” Ross plays her character as if she represented the dramatic and emotional summit of Western civilization. And a handful of other reliably joyful entertainers—most egregiously Jackson, Russell, and Pryor—follow her lead. This is The Wizard of Oz pitched midway between the first act of A Raisin in the Sun and the last scene of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and it lasts a mind-boggling 135 minutes.
Most sadly, the film collapses under the weight of its creators’ own good intentions. The credits make no mention of the 1939 Victor Fleming film (though Lumet and the great, underappreciated cinematographer Oswald Morris borrow a handful of iconic shots), instead recasting The Wiz as a new, standalone version of L. Frank Baum’s novel. This may be in keeping with the Black Power ethos of the times, though it seems strange that a first-generation Motown artist like Ross would dismiss the original film outright. Aside from its still-astounding art direction, the Fleming version’s main claim to permanence is its score; it’s hard to think of another movie where individual characters are so fully drawn through their singing alone. When we think of Dorothy, we think of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and each of her companions has their equivalent showcase, where they express their essential longings and beliefs in song. No wonder Civil Rights-era black musicians felt compelled to retell the story.
But I didn’t think much about Fleming’s film while watching The Wiz. Instead, I thought a lot about Wattstax, the 1972 concert and film that expresses many of the same ideas while retaining a sense of humor. Like The Wiz, Wattstax is a celebration of black unity made by a white director (Mel Stuart, fresh off Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), and was perceived, reductively, to be a remake of sorts: “The Black Woodstock.” Jesse Jackson’s appearance early in the film, reciting his incredible poem/litany “I Am—Somebody,” distills Black Pride to an aphoristic essence: “In Watts we have shifted from ’burn, baby, burn’ to ’learn, baby, learn.’ We have shifted from having a seizure about what the Man got, to seizing what we need.” But in the unedited performance, released on CD in 2004, Jackson makes the relationship between black pride and the entertainment industry more explicit: “This is the one industry where, because of our gifts as singers and actors, we can produce and distribute and consume.”
Wattstax, its misguided Woodstock reputation notwithstanding, is a statement of cultural purpose, and a rollicking cry for respect. It also happens to be one of the most purely happy movies I’ve ever seen, a celebration of one communal event that nearly every interviewee describes as “beautiful.” The Wiz, meanwhile, is a canny, if not exactly groundbreaking, act of cultural appropriation, and is delivered like a sermon. Lumet, in early movies from 12 Angry Men to Dog Day Afternoon, showed an ability to convey the emotional ebb and flow of crowds, but he doesn’t really have a defining visual style, and seems particularly lost amid The Wiz’s expensive set design; half the movie is comprised of static long shots with stark gray skies. And while the sets and backgrounds are indeed lavish, the attempts at social relevance—the munchkin equivalents emerge from graffiti murals, and this late-’70s Oz is filled with junkies and squalid backlots—are too obvious, though they appear to have been an important influence on Schumacher’s own urban-neon silliness in his terrible Batman movies.
What a shame it all is. I went in at least expecting something odd and inspired, like Altman’s Popeye, which came out two years later. But The Wiz is surprisingly drab, needlessly sullen, and ultimately corrupts the original’s “no place like home” resonance. Tellingly, we’re given no reason to believe that Ross’s Dorothy ends up in Oz because of a dream; The Wiz accepts her journey as literal, and deadly serious. So when Lena Horne tells Ross about the importance of being one’s self—in a climactic, glitter-filled diva showdown that’s too earnest to even serve as camp—it all rings hollow. There’s no inner journey in this tale, just one poor schoolteacher thrust against her will into a nightmarish disco-junky fantasia. The last shot shows her running back to her home, but unlike Judy Garland, she hasn’t learned to look at any of her relatives with new eyes. Presumably, if her trip was as personally affecting as it appears, she merely learned to travel beyond her own home. It’s an unforeseen irony that this Motown-produced bit of late black pride ultimately stresses the importance of moving beyond one’s cultural community. But maybe that’s the only appropriate moral behind this Hollywood misfire, which is itself a kind of metaphor for Motown’s 1972 move from Detroit to L.A.: You can’t blame them for trying, but it kind of defeats the whole purpose.
John Lingan lives and writes outside of Washington, DC. He blogs at Busy Being Born.