Call it whatever you’d like, but this all-black modernization and loosening-up of The Wizard of Oz sure ain’t business as usual. Following the script but rereading the lines, altering the inflections, and considerably jazzing up the razzamatazz, the all-black The Wiz is ironically a loaf of white bread behind the screen (black stars became popular during this time, but black directors and writers, and thus control of movie sets and structure, and potentially control of white underlings, was still verboten by the Hollywood elite). Headed up by the hippest cat in town, Sidney Lumet, fresh off of simmering New York to a boil in Dog Day Afternoon and blowing his top in Network, this film is Lumet’s first old-fashioned NYC acid-trip.
The result, a film about a crumbling, post-industrial Harlem hell-bent on imagining itself as a new, worthwhile dream world, reignites images of Lumet’s earlier, grislier New York walkabouts like Serpico while also pointing the way toward the venomous, even nasty production design carnivals of the ‘80s like, perhaps ironically, Return to Oz. Although ultimately a passive production with an eye for children and family entertainment, The Wiz essays a surprisingly dreary sense of contemporary squalor and urban undernourishment that projects Lumet, a comically unlikely director for this material on the surface, as a real fit for such a dank, terrorized vision of New York City. Airy on the surface, The Wiz is implicitly an expression of black culture searching for meaning in a city that can catalyze both imagination and consternation.
Undoubtedly, the opportunity to ingest a tentpole budget and apply it to his trademarked sense of disregarded, thrown-away, rat-nest cities was what got Lumet all hot-and-bothered when he was asked to corral this production into a box office winner, and it shows. Gifted to him by producer Rob Cohen (Lumet likely could have had any project in the world in 1978, so don’t say this film wasn’t a passion project of sorts), The Wiz is the scalding-hot iron of Lumet’s biggest budget yet mushrooming into his folly (the film was a significant failure commercially). His penance? Returning to small-scale, canonical masterworks like The Verdict and massaging out of Paul Newman his finest role. What shame!
And, rounding out this down-town trio of hip young things hot with the kids, is none other than Joel Schumacher (yes that Joel Schumacher), whose acid-trip hell-scape ain’t got a thing on the mushrooming hallucinogenic lunacy of his duo of toxic nightmare Batman pictures (you know, after Tim Burton rounded the bend with his expressionistic nightmare versions and before Christopher Nolan would come round the mountain to paint his modernist noir-opera version of the familiar tale). Admittedly, not all of the film’s overly manicured faults are obviously the progeny of the writing; even a master like Lumet, no spring chicken at 55 when this film was released, turned out to be exactly the old fogey this film didn’t need at the box office, emphasizing his classical Hollywood set design rather than the needs of the characters.
Anyway, perhaps no one can explain whether this meeting of minds was foretold in the cinematic prophecies or whether it was just blind chance, but that they were conscripted to write and direct a nominally “hip” film is priceless. I mean, Schumacher’s Batman and Robin aesthetic was basically a pimp trenchoat anyway, but the man has proven over decades that he is about as far from black culture, or earth culture, as inhumanly possible. As for Sidney Lumet, maybe, maybe Lumet had seen Shaft, if he had a more expansive interest in the cinema of New York than simply producing his own films, so perhaps Cohen justified his hiring with that. Or maybe they thought he was Sidney Poitier?
So while the story saunters along, the points are the same (Dorothy is whisked away to Oz, where she meets the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion on her merry way to the Wiz’s palace to return home). But there’s a certain, well the use of “whisked” is just about right, vibe to it. Dorothy is now a black schoolteacher of 24 in New York City, and not a 12 year old pale-as-a-ghost Kansas girl whose only friends are the farmhands. Oh, and she’s also Diana Ross, with the likes of Michael Jackson (perhaps fuming from the production, as he never acted in a major role again) and Nipsey Russell on retainer as the Scarecrow and Tin Man respectively.
Which is cool and all, but again, the countenance of the frame is the real galvanizing principle here. Lumet’s directorial credo is spatially oriented, which is antithetical to the expectations of individualist, face-focused American pop filmmaking, a trade-off that bewilders, perplexes, and actually fascinates even as it largely saps the film of any box office potential. Rather than an up close and personal energy to the characters, Lumet boisterously favors the widest of wide shots to pimp the elephantiasis of his very effortful set design. Obviously his proudest achievement here, the sets are enshrined in the camera as golden cinematic fulfillments, something we know because the camera practically fondles them in all their rhapsodic glory. However, that they are rhapsodic doesn’t mean they are pristine. While The Wizard of Oz promised an imagination biome achievable for any child willing to dream, The Wiz feels more like a wild child, a collective NY nightmare with an intimate, raw, unfinished vibe, as though the sets, however grandiose, were unlacquered and prone to frigid tatters, as infected as they were infectious.
All told, this vibe isn’t a failure, but an oddly moving, askew evocation of the city as a rotted, even poisonous apple where the imagination can catalyze the city’s withered aura into a wellspring of disheveled beauty, but always a beauty circumscribed by the turmoil of the material city itself (thus monsters are hewn from trash and other NYC bric-a-brac). Although the city is ramshackle, slipshod, stapled together, and falling down, it also accrues a dwarfing omnipresence over the tiny, insignificant characters, often specks in the frame, much as the hard-luck city casts a pall over the people searching for a future in it, testing the city’s labyrinthine corridors as sharks and other creatures littered around loom down every path.
As a corollary to this tone, the actors hide a thoroughly embedded vulnerability, shockingly broken-down and fractured for a family film. Ever befuddled and innocent like a scrawny child confused about the world around him and wielding his comedy like a weapon to carve out a modicum of sense in the senseless, even Richard Pryor (who plays the golden hope Wiz) marries his kid in a candy store insouciance to an existential crisis and physical frailty suggesting his own ineffectual charisma. Michael Jackson always felt like a child forced to grow up, but Pryor seemed even more abused by a world without a place for him. Famously misunderstood by white audiences who more or less turned Pryor into a punching bag, the comedian often subcutaneously revoked his own star power with his insatiable feelings of inadequacy and anxiety about his need to appease white audiences and adopt outward coon personas. His role as the Wiz here, an ultimately frightened, doubt-afflicted, ineffectual person hiding behind shields and masks, evokes the turmoil for Pryor’s brand of troubled whimsy, bedeviled by the world and desperately attempting to throw a little of his own devil back into the game to confront all the people watching, judging, and doubting him. In fact, with all due respect to The Wizard of Oz, a masterpiece and a vastly superior film, The Wiz is possibly more evocative of the idea of broken-down people missing pieces of their existence (a mind, a heart, courage). But this Wiz, the god child of the world, played by one of the most worshiped black man in America at the time, is the most discarded, frightened, and missing of all.
With fanciful subways, playgrounds, even sweatshops, along with a particularly harebrained Coney Island and characters formed out of graffiti itself, the film’s aesthetic is cosmically funky in both senses, at once a playground party-down and a frightening, batty, unworkable location that is both a dream and a nightmare to the New Yorkers who inhabit it. Menacing garbage creatures here would give perpetual punching bag Pokemon Garbador a run for his money, and the imagination of the production designer (Tony Walton) is in full effect with resplendent mise-en-scene that is all the more evocative for how down-trodden and falling-apart it seems. More than any particular character, this The Wiz is an ode to a city (the city Lumet loved to tango with, typically violently) both at the end of its ropes and clinging to a frightening capacity to reimagine itself just to get by one more day. A broken film about a tattered world, The Wiz works almost in spite of itself; this walking accident is a worthwhile nonsense film searching to pacify the nonsense of the world by clarifying it, imbuing it with a meaning it never finds. But it never finds it in the most spirited manner possible.
Score: 6.5/10 (not really good per-se, but compared to its toxic reputation, it sure feels good)