This film (and its soundtrack) has been a part of my life since my infant days, and when I recently found out how it got, and still gets somewhat, of a negative reception when its mentioned, I just couldn't understand why. What exactly were people expecting out of a silver screen version of The Wizard of Oz with an all-black cast? Was it being compared to the broadway play starring vocalist Stephanie Mills as Dorothy? Were some actually trying to compare it to the original 1939 Judy Garland classic? I just don't get it.
Taking off my nostalgia glasses for this column topic (I'll just leave them on my desk here), "The Wiz" is nothing more than an entertaining, lighthearted re-imagining of the original "Oz" film. Produced by Motown founder Berry Gordy and released in 1978 starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow, Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, Ted Ross as The Lion, and Richard Pryor as "The Wiz," the "re-imagining" part of this version was that the story was set in (and in some points shot on location) New York City instead of Kansas---there's even a scene depicting the emerald city, filmed at the World Trade Center. Dorothy is now a 24 year-old kindergarten teacher instead of a 12 year old girl, (both live with their uncle and aunt) who lacks the confidence to take a better- paying high school teaching position so she can afford to live on her own. Dorothy is then whisked away to the land of Oz thanks to a "snow tornado" during a blizzard (probably the only part in the movie I have a problem with). As expected, she meets the memorable characters The munchkins (now street kids), Glinda the Good witch, played by Lena Horne, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion, and The Wicked Witch of the West, called "Evillene" here, played by Mable King. Once again, the new take on some of the characters and environments I liked as a kid, and still do now. The original character Miss One, who sort of comes off as Glinda's assistant, has some memorable lines like "bottom line, honey, this chick put the UG in UGLY!" when referring to The deceased wicked witch of the East, "Evermean." The costumes and set designs are fantastic, incorporating late '70s black culture in New York at the time. I'm torn between Michael Jackson's scarecrow outfit and Nipsey Russel's tinman outfit as far as the best costume is concerned. Both are very creative, and in the case of the Scarecrow, make the actor almost unrecognizable.
By far, my two favorite things about this film are the "concrete jungle" scene (an urban version of the original film's "lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my" scene), and of course, the music. Taking place in a deserted subway station, Dorothy and her friends are confronted and then chased by such characters as a subway peddler with two giant orange puppets (which still scare the crap out of me to this day), mutant trash cans with sharp teeth (I was never scared of these as a kid because they were shorter than the puppets. I always felt that I could just kick them over), and support pillars hellbent on crushing you. Then there is the one thing that even people who hate this movie, love: The soundtrack. You just can't go wrong with Quincy Jones at the musical helm of this film. From songs such as Michael Jackson's "You Can't Win," to "Poppy Girls," with a bassline obviously inspired by the OJay's "For the Love of Money," to the iconic "Ease on down the Road (speaking of basslines)," most of the songs are bouncy, funky, fun, and even the slower songs such as "Is this What Feeling Gets" and "Home" range from heart-wrenching to triumphant. My personal favorite song in this movie is an instrumental: The Main Title/Overture, a dreamy sequence that opens the movie, complete with beautiful strings, funk guitar, and a fantastic but short harmonica solo by Toots Theilman. Yup, before Stevie Wonder and songs like "Oh Girl" by the Chi-Lites, it was this soundtrack that made me first fall in love with the harmonica. Toots Theilman later would play harmonica on a live version of the Billy Joel hit "Leave a tender moment Alone." And while we're talking about what some cast and crew from "The Wiz" would do afterward, there's no way I could leave out Michael Jackson's "Off The Wall" album being created due to this movie. After all, this is where Michael and Quincy Jones met before producing that R&B/Disco/Funk masterpiece.
So take that, all you people who still hate "The Wiz." If you simply watch the film for what it was, and what it was trying to do (be a black Wizard Of Oz), it's a very entertaining film. On a sad note, it's a shame that very little of the original cast is still alive (in fact, Diana Ross is the only surviving member of the main cast). Despite this, I can only hope that there is some type of lost documentary footage with full cast interviews that could be used for a special edition DVD release (the current DVD just has a short featurette with the Director Sidney Lumet, Producer Rob Cohen, and Diana Ross). I know that there will people who still don't like this movie even after reading this, but at least if I made you want to take a second look at this film, well, that's all I can hope for.