Monday, April 14, 2008

Guilty Pleasure 5: The Wiz

Like so many others, my earliest movie viewing memory is watching "The Wizard of Oz" on one of it's annual showings on CBS. I tell my kids about this and they can't even fathom that we could only journey to Oz once a year. I love "The Wizard of Oz!" If there is such a thing as a perfect movie, Oz is it. I also have a deep appreciation for L. Frank Baum's original book "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz." A couple of years ago my daughter and I read through the book as our nightly bedtime story (I had read it once as a child as well) and it led to us tackling all 14 of Baum's Oz books. The world Baum created shows a man of amazing creativity, and I love watching the various interpretations of his most famous Oz story. The original book has been in the public domain since 1956, so many different versions have come out since that time. Which leads us to one of the most well known, "The Wiz."

Originally a Broadway musical, "The Wiz" debuted in 1975 with the film to follow in 1978. The film, which takes place in an urban Oz, differs greatly from the stage version, which was set in the same time as the original book. I actually find the urban setting to be intriguing, but it doesn't exactly make Oz into a fantastic place where you'd actually want to stay.

This is actually an odd time for movie musicals, "Grease" was released earlier in the year, and ended up being the highest grossing movie of 78. But "Grease" was also the last great movie musical before the long dry spell for the genre. So, in a sense, "The Wiz" is the genre's last gasp.

Watching the bonus features on the DVD actually offers some interesting insight into how "The Wiz" made it to the screen. Apparently a producer acquired the rights to the musical and was working to bring it to the screen when he received a call that singer Diana Ross decided that she wanted to play Dorothy in "The Wiz." First mistake, right there. Ross is all wrong for the role of Dorothy. Sure she can sing, but her Dorothy is whiny and irritating as opposed to the wide-eyed girl she should be. The rest of the casting is inspired, though. Michael Jackson, not quite as notorious in those days, is great as the Scarecrow. Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, and Richard Pryor (as the Tin Man, Lion, and Wizard respectively) are no slouches either.

The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, who helmed films like "12 Angry Men," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," and "Network." So what happened here? OK, I'll just say it, "The Wiz" is not a good film. It lacks the sense of awe and excitement that should be present on any visit to Oz. So why do I list it as a guilty pleasure. I guess it ranks up there as an odd curiosity for me. Some of the songs are real downers, but I just can't resist some of the more upbeat offerings like "Don't Nobody Bring me no Bad News," "Ease on Down the Road," and "Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day." Though, I must admit, when the Winkies suddenly transform into the Solid Gold Dancers during that last song, it's a little creepy. I guess part of it is also just seeing a different interpretation of a favorite story. I'd love to see somebody take a stab at "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," in the vein that the recent Lord of the Rings and Narnia films have followed. I doubt it will happen, though. Still, "The Wiz" is fun to drag out every now and then.

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