Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Wiz (1978) Review:

The world is made up of numerous cultures. Of these civilizations, their followers do things differently from every other one. Some may have similarities while others bare no resemblance. When it comes to portraying these customs to a wider audience, it is of great relevance to include key parts that help define it as what people know it for today and why it is the way it is. So the best way to get a viewer’s attention would be to adapt this sequence of events in some way that follows the same lines as other critically acclaimed works. The Wizard of Oz (1939) was phenomenally groundbreaking for its time and is considered to be one of the all time classic movies to see. So why not use this as the foundation for a similar movie but this time using somebody else's culture. For that idea alone, it's ingenious but that also requires a great understanding of the subject matter. Which, this film does mostly get right but doesn't fully take advantage of it the whole way either.

Introducing the Scarecrow
The backbone of the screenplay, of which Joel Schumacher (known at the time for Sparkle (1976) and Car Wash (1976)) is unchanged for the majority of the time. Dorothy (Diana Ross) is caught in a tornado (a blizzard actually) in the middle of New York and is thrown into the land of Oz where she must find the wizard (Richard Pryor) to get home. Sidney Lumet (who’d later direct Prince of the City (1981) also directed the film. This is okay for some things but not for others. What's good about it is that fans of The Wizard of Oz (1939) can pick out the parallels to how the story plays out and see how creative the production got. The problems arise when the execution starts out promising and then ends up becoming just a routine as the running time continues on. It's difficult to say whether this was intentional or not but the best scene that seems to provide the most social commentary is the introduction of the scarecrow (Michael Jackson - in his debut entry). At the start, talking crows (who sound like the crows from Dumbo (1941) oddly enough) that remind him how significant he is hanging on the post and doing nothing surrounds the scarecrow. That alone is an analogy to the unfair "Jim Crow" laws that were pro-segregation – of how African Americans were forced to do nothing but be bullied by the “crow” laws.

However as for the introductions to the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) and Lion (Ted Ross), the social subtext behind them doesn't feel visible. If it is there, it was a deeply hidden message I guess. Joel Schumacher is actually a good choice for penning the script considering Sparkle (1976) and Car Wash (1976) had predominantly African American cast members and were significant for their time. Aside from the incomplete writing, which was supposed to have an African American undercurrent, everything else was fine performance wise. Diana Ross as Dorothy is sweet, brave and caring. Michael Jackson (who is almost unrecognizable in his makeup) as the scarecrow is goofy, innocent and for a guy who's known for his footwork shows that he can look like he hasn't walked a day in his life. Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man is the soul of the group providing much of the needed energy to quite side of the bunch. Ted Ross as the Lion, who perhaps hams it up a little too much sometimes, is still funny with his cowardice personality.

All the visual elements work nicely with each other. The cinematography provided by Oswald Morris (The Man With the Golden Gun (1974)), which would be his 4th to last work expertly caught shots that had grand matte paintings and other physical set pieces. Even the special/practical effects were very convincing. The dancing also was well choreographed and staged by Louis Johnson who was nominated for a Broadway's 1970 Tony Award. Plus, the dance sequences were a no 3-4 member group count. This was wide scale, 1000 of extras on board all performing the same movement together in unison. That takes skill. As for music, the film features a soundtrack and score, both composed by Charlie Smalls who would unfortunately pass away a decade later. Here, Smalls uses a lot the 1970s style instruments used in song making at the time. That means including synthesizers, electric piano and lots bongo drums. The soundtrack is a different story.

That's a lot of extras...imagine the work to get
that right in one take
The songs, which were also drawn up by Smalls, has a number of catchy themes. Cues like Dorothy's "Is This What Feeling Gets?" (which is the main theme), "Ease On Down the Road", "You Can't Win, You Can't Break Even" and "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" are only a bunch of jazz/R&B/soul songs that come to mind because a number of the tunes play will get the legs moving. For these songs, the actors sing them and 95% of the emotions feel real especially for Diana Ross; you can tell she's singing that. It's difficult not to get a little choked up. However there are a couple of exceptions. For example, Ted Ross seems to have someone covering for him because he can't seem to look authentic covering the singer's lines. The only problem to bring up was the use of unexplained characters. There's a homeless guy running around the film who apparently becomes a threat later on but for no real reason or motivation (that is given). It doesn't make much sense, but that's it.

The social undercurrent in its writing works at first but then is completely dropped. That and one character in the movie has no real importance and some lip synching isn't all that convincing. Yet, the movie is mostly made up with decent effects, a lively main cast, great looking choreography, cinematography and catchy music.

Points Earned --> 6:10

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