Cinemalphabet: W is for The Wiz
At the time of its release 1978 film adaptation of The Wiz was a critical and commercial bomb. Coming at the tail end of blaxploitation and the beginning of limited integration of mainstream films made the hollywood high priced hot mess – with its all-black cast – an odd duck. In reading reviews of the film so much of the criticism that doesn’t center on the casting of Diana Ross in a role she was too damn old and unskilled to play is couched in so much racism that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. It’s not any less glorious than best picture winner Chicago, and at least Lumet had the decency to hire performers who, for the most part, could actually sing.
I love many of the actors in Chicago but not many of them have voices I’d like to hear set to music ever again. The Wiz is pretty subversive with stealthy hidden commentary on insular struggles of Black folks, which might explain why Ray Bolger didn’t like it so much. Not sure why anyone gave a shit what that mofo thought of some new hotness that didn’t have shit to do with his crusty Scarecrow ass, but I guess it was a slow news day. Anyway, I don’t put much stock in white folks’ criticism of The Wiz because they are responsible for things like Cop Rock and all those awful reality shows, which in my opinion are much, much worse than The Wiz,.
Besides, here’s a newsflash: The Wiz isn’t for you, so my black ass could give two sizzling fucks why it doesn’t work for your ass. It works just fine for me.
Like most black folks – at least in my fantagical version of the black folk narrative (said in a Booming Earl Jones voice), when really it’s probably just my sister and me – I came to know of director Sidney Lumet through The Wiz and the giddy seven year old in me still gleefully mispronounces his name “LUM ET” instead of “LOO-MET” the correct pronunciation.
We used to chant “LUM ET LUM ET” while watching the opening credits of The Wiz and tossing Cabby (my sister’s CPK) in the air.
We also thought he was black.
He had to be, because in our childish way we assumed black folks had to be at the helm of shit this money. It would be years before we were introduced to Teena Marie, Hall & Oates, Roger Ebert, Young Americans era Bowie, racial and sexual dynamics in Hollywood or the concept of white folks and black folks collaborating to harness the power of pure awesome in service of pop culture.
I feel geeky admitting that each major crew member of The Wiz had a corresponding Cabbage Patch Doll, imaginary friend or personal effect named in their honor. My typewriter was named “Joel Schumacher”, my Fisher-Price record player, “Quincy-Vandross,” (of course!), and my Fisher-Price camera was named after trailblazing film editor and personal bad ass chick hero: “Dede Allen”.
There are millions of things right with this movie, so I’ll go ahead and tell you the one thing that’s wrong with it: Diana Ross. Now, I don’t personally find her performance is a barrier towards enjoyment of the film, which I’ve probably seen more than any other movie save Men in Black or Auntie Mame, but I can definitely see how others might. It asks a lot of good will from the audience to have them accept the 34 year old Ross as the 24 year old awkward and shy school teacher living at with Aunt and Uncle in Brooklyn. Of course The Wiz is “cheesy”, but trust me when I tell you the direction, music, costumes and choreography look 1000x better than the Superman film that was released the same year – 1978. Superman looks woefully dated, where The Wiz looks cool, shiny and kind of weird.
Besides, Donner couldn’t rock a slamming Emerald City Sequence like Lumet did. Filmed at the World Trade Center, which serve as the headquarters of Oz, the sequence is my favorite part of the film. I know every single costume detail – I see you, Norma Kamali. Omg, totally watch that link. Sorry I couldn’t embed. It’s the best 7mins02secs you’ll spend all day. Definitely the most fashionable.
I was fairly obsessed with solving the mystery of the costume changes. It seemed beyond comprehension that the dancers would be so decadent to have three different costumes – green, red and gold! There were a lot of dancers in a lot of shiny clothing and my mind was blown by their clothing. I conducted an experiment with the shiny silver packaging from a pair of La Mommie’s pantyhose and shined various colored lights on it to see if it would then look as though it was that color all along. Once my experiment was completed, I didn’t revisit the question the rest of my childhood. The alternate theory – the dancers wore several costumes – was just too upsetting. After all at that point in my life – I was around five or six – I only had one shiny, sparky motion outfit Emerald City Sequence catwalk worthy and according to La Mommie it was more than enough!
I remember when I thought this woman was saying, “Wear whoopies on your yacht!” when she was saying, “Wear rubies on your yacht!” which of course, considering the theme is red and all, makes a lot more sense!
It’s definitely on my bucket list to dance on top of a lucite piano with gold outline as Quincy Jones plays what sounds suspiciously like the music they play at black church when the preacher gets on a groove and gets “happy” in the pulpit.
The Wiz boasts a dream cast of blactors and blactresses. All the black sitcom mamas of the day: the incomparable Theresa Merritt as Auntie Em, Thelma Carpenter as Miss One and of course, the great Mabel King unrecognizable as Evillene the Wicked Witch of the West. Broadway luminaries such as Ted Ross (the Lion), an adorable chap named Michael (Scarecrow) reprise their roles, while fresh talent such as Nipsey “Ugly goes clear to the bone” Russell and Richard Pryor were cast to make the production feel more contemporary. But the show stopper was Miss Lena Horne – Lumet’s mother-in-law at the time of the production – as Glinda the Good Witch of the South. Her brief bookend appearances are some of the most glorious moments of the film. Shutting it down, does not even begin to describe the quality of her performance.
Ugh, I wish someone would upload a better quality version of this performance. I always tell people I’m the starbaby at 1m35s. Mostly to get free drinks in bars.