“The Wiz” (1978) is a film based on the Broadway musical of the same name. It is a black version of “The Wizard of Oz” set in New York City. Diana Ross was Dorothy, Michael Jackson was the Scarecrow, Richard Pryor was the Wiz and Lena Horne was Glinda the Good Witch of the South. Kansas was played by Harlem, Munchkinland by Queens and the Emerald City by Wall Street. Quincy Jones was in charge of the music.
Despite all that wonderful talent it did badly. Universal and Motown made it for $24 million (4 million crowns) but lost over $10 million. That ended Diana Ross’s days as a film actress and pretty much killed Hollywood’s desire to make black films for years to come. It had been steadily turning them out ever since “Shaft” became a surprise hit in 1971.
But “The Wiz” did bring together Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, a match that would lead to Jackson’s “Off the Wall” (1979), “Thriller” (1982) and “Bad” (1987).
Parts of the film seem shockingly cheesy and amateurish, like the subway scene or the snow tornado in Harlem. But the ending was wonderful and powerful, way better than Judy Garland’s 1939 Oz film. That is when Diana Ross sings “Home”.
It has 25 songs and 650 dancers! I have never seen it on Broadway but the film does come off seeming like a warmed over stage show.
Its two famous songs are “Home” and “Ease on Down the Road”. Ashford and Simpson helped to write a song. So did Luther Vandross.
Stephanie Mills played Dorothy on Broadway and was set to play her in the film too, but then at five o’clock one morning Diana Ross called Berry Gordy, the head of Motown, and talked him into giving her the part.
There is no way I would have known that the Scarecrow was Michael Jackson apart from his voice and some of his dance moves. He was scared of crows and would often pull out bits of paper from his stuffing and read wise sayings.
The Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) was found at the Coney Island amusement park. The Lion (Ted Ross, no relation of Diana Ross) was one of the stone lions at the entrance of the New York Public Library. The Wiz lived at the top of one of the Twin Towers. The Emerald City dance scene took place in the square down below. The “Don’t Walk” signs said “Don’t Ease”. The flying monkeys were a motorcycle gang and the poppies were prostitutes.
The Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King) ran a sweat shop that produced sweat. She was not killed by a bucket of water but the sprinkler system. When she died the sweat shop workers took off their ugly clothes and faces and sang and danced in one of the film’s best scenes.
The Wiz could help not Dorothy and her friends – he was from New Jersey and had no powers at all. But then Glinda tells Dorothy about her silver shoes, etc.
– Abagond, 2010.