There's an unintentionally revealing making-of featurette on The Wiz DVD that helps explain how a joyous theatrical smash can get turned into a famously disastrous motion picture. In it producer Rob Cohen gushes about how when Diana Ross campaigned for the lead role he acquiesced almost immediately despite the very minor incongruity of a 33-year old megastar playing a role written for a 12-year-old. Cohen needed a big director so he tapped Sidney Lumet, an old hand at directing light-hearted, family-friendly fantastical fare like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Twelve Angry Men. Lumet reasoned that most folks live in cities so The Wiz accordingly abandoned the heartland and the Oz of old for New York City and an Oz that looks like Harlem after ingesting bad mushrooms.
I think it might be amusing to apply Cohen's strange logic to adapting a more recent kiddie smash, Harry Potter. Sure, Harry may be a teenageboy in the book but good news, everyone, Tom Cruise is just wild about Harry and wants to play the lead! So suddenly Harry's no longer a young boy: now he's a 30-year old man (a stretch for Cruise, sure, but then so is Ross playing a 24-year-old in The Wiz). Now we need a respected director for our alternate universe version of Harry Potter. How bout Paul Schrader? Once on board Schrader perceptively notes that nobody relates to attending schools for wizards so now the 30-year-old Harry Potter works as a comptroller in a gloomy Manhattan office. Of course we still want magic and wonder in our alt-Harry Potter so Cruise's 30-year-old comptroller Harry Potter indulges in fantasy role-playing games during his spare time. Zoila! We now have a feature-film adaptation of a smash-hit pop culture sensation that's exactly like its source material only, you know, completely different.
Sadly I think even my Tom Cruise version of Harry Potter would have a better chance at the box-office than The Wiz. Granted, Motown probably thought it was a wise move handing over a Tony winning smash to super soul brothers Lumet, screenwriter and future Batman & Robin auteur Joel Schumacher and producer Rob Cohen, or, as they are collectively known, The Voice Of Black America. But The Wiz nevertheless falls prey to one colossal miscalculation after another.
As a director Lumet's primary goal seems to be to show off just how fucking huge his sets are. Seriously, folks, they're really fucking huge! The movie even got an Oscar nomination for Best Production Design. And by "best" I mean "most." To illustrate just how fucking huge the sets are Lumet shoots much of the film in static wide shots that reduce his actors to tiny little blips. To cite a characteristically bone-headed example he shoots Michael Jackson and Diana Ross singing a celebratory early rendition "Ease On Down The Road" from about 30 feet behind his leads. Because you wouldn't really want to see Michael Jackson and Diana Ross' faces when they sing, would you? What could that possibly tell you about Lumet's really expensive sets?
Granted, a lot of MGM and Astaire-Rogers musicals were shot largely in medium and wide shots in extended takes. But in those movies the camera became an elegant partner in the dance. In The Wiz the camera's just some stationary dude in the balcony shooting coverage. The Wizard Of Oz is timeless but The Wiz's Oz seems like a trippy headspace reachable only through a long night of over-indulgence at Studio 54.
The Wiz is a garish, poorly directed film that gave me The Apple flashbacks even before a production number involving women sashaying about in bikinis and men in what appear to be skimpy diapers (that'll bring in the family crowd!) yet it's nevertheless strangely affecting
Ross' casting in the lead role is enormously problematic but I found myself attracted to the squirmy vulnerability of her performance. It's that vulnerability that was fatally lacking in Beyonce Knowles' performance, essentially as Ross, in Dreamgirls, that damaged, fragile quality that Pryor and Jackson share. It'd be hard to imagine greater talents than Pryor and Jackson, just as it'd be hard to imagine icons who did more to squander their almost inconceivable gifts.
The Wiz is a bruised and battered movie about a motley aggregation of damaged souls searching for that ineffable something that will make them whole. I dig the film's druggy '70s vibe. I dig its infectious soundtrack. I dig pretty much the entire cast, especially Jackson in his only major film role and Pryor's heartbreakingly powerless Wizard.
But more than anything I dig the way The Wiz would still feel like a shell-shocked elegy for a crazy, scary, violent, vibrant New York that no long exists even if it didn't prominently feature the Twin Towers. The Wiz is a weird, ugly film that nevertheless attains strange, fleeting moments of grace.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Secret Success