The Wiz (1978)

*. The Wiz is a real headscratcher of a movie: not so bad it’s good but rather full of both very good and very bad parts.
*. Its failure at the box office is often said to mark the end of the blaxploitation era, but I can’t see why, aside from the obvious fact that it has an all Black cast, this qualifies as a blaxploitation film. At the time it was the most expensive movie musical ever made. That’s not exploitation cinema.
*. Instead of blaxploitation what it strikes me as being is a cross between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Warriors. In other words, a movie very much of its time (all three films were released within the same six-month period). Such a pairing also helps explain some of the good-bad dichotomy in The Wiz, since Sgt. Pepper’s is one of the worst movies ever made and The Warriors is an underground classic.
*. Of course by this time the Hollywood musical was pretty much dead. Why? Rock might have had a hand in it. A great pop song isn’t a great show tune. Sgt. Pepper’s had a lot of great music, but not great musical music. And maybe the whole idea of a musical just seemed silly by the ’70s. Saturday Night Fever worked because the music was part of the story (or diegetic). In The Rocky Horror Music Show the music worked because the whole idea of the characters breaking out in song was part of the camp goofiness. But these are rare exceptions to the rule.
*. I think the music in The Wiz is mostly forgettable. There’s the “Ease on Down the Road” number, played three times, but that’s the only real show-stopper. Most of the rest of the stuff struck me as disposable. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” isn’t bad, but I didn’t see where it had much to do with the story. There’s a huge production number done at the plaza of the World Trade Center during what seems to be a hurricane (just look at Quincy Jones trying to smile while avoiding being blown off his piano bench). I had no idea what the point of it was. To mock changing fashions? It looks like the halftime show at the Super Bowl or the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. And just as hard to sit through.

*. The production values are also all over the map. I love the Flying Monkeys imagined as a motorcycle gang. They’re great. But then on the subway platform the gang are attacked by garbage receptacles with teeth that wouldn’t look out of place on a high-school musical stage.
*. What can you say about the cast? Diana Ross is just another in a long, long list of pop/rock stars who for whatever reason can’t project charisma on screen. But she’s not bad, given the incongruity of her being older than we imagine Dorothy being while still preserving a childish asexuality. Michael Jackson I lump in the same category, but he’s unrecognizable anyway with a Reese’s cup stuck on his nose. It’s a relief when Richard Pryor shows up.
*. It bombed and was panned when it came out, but as with any movie this big and this strange it’s gone on to enjoy a bit of a cult afterlife. Which is something I can understand. There are certainly parts of it that stick in your head, even as it goes on too long and ends on a really low note with a corny message about believing in yourself and the power of positive thinking. I think The Wizard of Oz had more going on, though I wonder if that’s even a fair comparison. Has The Wiz become something timeless? Oddly enough, it may be getting there.

2 thoughts on “The Wiz (1978)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    Haven’t seen this for ages, and your observations make me feel another look is due; I do like these misguided 70’s farragos, The Apple, Sgt Pepper, Ken Russell, they all entertain seen from today.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      There’s a lot here that is memorable, and really good. But then so much that isn’t. And yes, seen from a contemporary perspective it all seems so strange. On the other hand, we had Cats . . .


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