Thursday, January 31, 2013

Go easy on this Oz tale

THE WIZ (1978)
Reviewed by Jerry Saravia
  I've come across very few people who had any positive feelings towards Sidney Lumet's "The Wiz." L. Frank Baum's novel has been transposed to late 1970's New York City with a suitably urban theme and lots of elaborate disco-type musical numbers and a thirty-something Diana Ross as a 24-year-old Dorothy who happens to be a Harlem schoolteacher. Yeah, it lacks the whimsy of the 1939 classic but it has its own infectious rhythms and its own slant on perhaps the most famous fantasy of all time. It dares to be different and that is a plus.

In this unique version of "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy runs after her dog, Toto, in a blizzard where a tornado happens to cross her path. She ends up in Oz except it is New York City yet strangely underpopulated and flashier. The Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) is teased by vultures. The Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) is at first a statue outside the New York Public Library. The Tin Man (Nipsy Russell) just needs a heart. Oz the Powerful (Richard Pryor) lives in one of the top floors of the World Trade Center/Emerald City that has its own TV media crew direct from the Oz channel. The flying monkeys are now revolting creatures that ride on motorcycles. Garbage cans come alive with snapping jaws. Lena Horne has a wonderfully magic moment as Glinda the Good. And there is Evil Evillene (Mabel King) who is royally pissed that her sister was killed by Dorothy, accidental or not.

"The Wiz" was one of the last films to have a completely black cast after the blaxploitation era, at least for a while. The film was a financial and critical disaster and it also marked Diana Ross's last role in a film. What a shame. It doesn't hold a candle to its 1939 counterpart but 'The Wiz" is far from being the dreary experience that critics claimed it was. It is upbeat in tone and contains its share of dazzling musical sequences and resplendent stage design and visual effects. Of course, my favorite number would be "Ease on Down the Road" with Michael Jackson pulling out all the stops in a musical performance that is probably the most memorable and uplifting. I also love the graffiti people that come out of the walls and do a number, or the rotating colorful outfits of the dancers in Emerald City. There is also a rousing number by Mabel King as she sings "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News."

"The Wiz" is perfectly fitting and admirable entertainment but it does have its snail-paced moments that threaten the overall musical's jagged rhythms. At 2 hours and 13 minutes, the movie does wear out its welcome especially after Pryor's appearance where he looks a little too withdrawn (compared to Frank Morgan's Oz in the original, I wonder who is more depressed in this movie, Oz or Dorothy?) Diana Ross, however, is engaging throughout (who sadly only appeared in a couple of TV movies since), appearing rather unglamorous that suits her role as an innocent who is astounded by this new world that mirrors her own. I did miss the significance of the opening scenes where she is clearly unhappy. We understood the reasons behind Judy Garland's Dorothy in the bare wasteland of sepia-toned Kansas, the kidnapping of her dog, etc. But we miss any understanding of this Dorothy's sorrow from the beginning - she finds herself at the end by clicking on her heels and heading home. But does she want to be there? Or does she miss being south of 125th street?

I still hope "The Wiz" can have a renewed lease in light of the rekindled interest of musicals in general. Who wouldn't want to ease on down the road again?