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Modern update of 'The Wizard of Oz' with Diana Ross as Dorothy leading her gang of no-gooders to the disco chic city of New York.
For more about The Wiz and the The Wiz Blu-ray release, see the The Wiz Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on November 26, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.5 out of 5.
Starring: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross
Director: Sidney Lumet
» See full cast & crew
The Wiz Blu-ray Review
They're definitely not in Kansas anymore.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, November 26, 2010
What could they have been thinking? Were they thinking? When The Wiz took Broadway by storm during the 1975 season, it was like a breath of fresh African-American air, a soulful revisiting of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Two years previously to The Wiz, another all (or at least mostly) black musical had opened on Broadway to great acclaim, Raisin, a musicalization of Lorraine Hansbury's iconic A Raisin in the Sun, and that show had proven that a musical ostensibly about and for a black audience could have universal appeal. (Several years earlier David Merrick had "stunt casted" his long running Hello, Dolly! with an African-American cast including Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway). Raisin was nominated for a slew of Tony Awards, taking home several, including Best Musical of the Year, so the Great White Way was obviously primed and eager for this sort of entertainment, and The Wiz, if anything, was even more exuberant and gospel-tinged than Raisin. With a book by William F. Brown and a charming score by Charlie Smalls, The Wiz was an even bigger hit than Raisin had been, capturing its own pile of Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The Wiz filtered Baum's vision through a distinctly black perspective, so that Dorothy's journey became a sort of symbol for black consciousness and pride as a whole. Smalls' score ran the gamut from outright gospel to more nuanced pop-rock stylings, including what would become a major hit for Broadway's original Dorothy Stephanie Mills, the gorgeous ballad "Home."
The 1970s were a heady era for African Americans across the spectrum of the arts in the United States, and film was no exception. "Blaxploitation" movies were all the rage, and though certainly not featuring any quasi-sexually named private eyes (like Shaft), The Wiz seemed ready made to cash in on the new audiences which were flocking to black-themed films in those days. And yet what might have seemed a surefire property on paper became one of the biggest albatrosses of 1970s film for the simple reason that the producers wanted to insure their investment by casting a major star in the part of Dorothy. Had the producers used a little common sense and cast the then-hot recording star Stephanie Mills in the part she had created, they may well have had at least a minor masterpiece on their hands. Audiences really aren't as fickle as a lot of industry insiders seem to think they are, and Mills' chart-topping cred certainly would have generated at least some interest in the film. Instead, in one of the most mind boggling casting decisions ever made for a major feature film, another iconic recording star—albeit one considerably older than Mills—decided she was right for the part, and once she expressed an interest in the role, the die was cast (no pun intended). And so Miss Ross, Miss Diana Ross, stepped into a role that had been originally conceived as a young child, and had morphed in several previous film adaptations into an adolescent or young teen. Gone were a youthful Dorothy and her farm-bound dreams of a better life. In their place was a frankly long in the tooth Ross, supposedly playing a 20-something, now a Harlem teacher not really longing for much of anything.
It's truly incredible looking at the roster of talent assembled for this film. Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne and, from the original Broadway cast, the Tony winning Ted Ross starred. Behind the scenes were scenarist Joel Schumacher, orchestrator Quincy Jones and director Sidney Lumet. Yes, that Sidney Lumet, a man who had cut his teeth on live television and then gone on to guide some of the most iconic performances in modern film. Hepburn and Robards in A Long Day's Journey Into Night. Henry Fonda in several films, including everything from 12 Angry Men to Fail-Safe. Al Pacino in Serpico. Peter Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden and Robert Duvall in Network. Albert Finney and Ingrid Bergman (among too many to name individually) in Murder on the Orient Express. And those are just a few of the films Lumet helmed before The Wiz. And yet this film just lies dormant like a deflated volcano that once might have had some fire in its belly, but is now bloated and nothing more than a feeble ember. Aside from Michael Jackson, who manages to invest his Scarecrow with a palpable joie de vivre, the rest of the cast is either inert or flounders about in a bunch of shtick and busy-ness that never amounts to much more than noise.
Directing a film musical is an arduous task, as even Broadway experts like Bob Fosse found out. Managing to craft an entertainment which moves (hopefully) effortlessly from dialogue to song and dance may seem like an easy thing to accomplish, but scores of unpleasant musical films through the decades prove that it really isn't. What sinks The Wiz more than anything, perhaps even more than the fatal miscasting of Ross, is the inexplicable decision to jettison virtually everything that made the original Broadway version such an innovative masterpiece. Large swaths of Smalls' score is gone (nothing unusual for a film adaptation of a Broadway show), but even seemingly minor things like character names, settings and plot points have been thrown asunder in a mad, and completely unsuccessful, attempt to "improve" on something that really didn't need that much tinkering to begin with in order to make it a viable film commodity.
There are transitory pleasures to be had in The Wiz, but they're few and far between. Ross' dour countenance sours most of the film, and there's simply no emotional pull for this Dorothy. Some of the dance segments are inventively staged, and Lumet manages to imagine a sort of dastardly Oz cum New York that is at least passably engaging, helped by Tony Walton's impressive production design. But what a huge, meandering, lumbering behemoth this film is. Rarely has something so joyful and life affirming been transformed into something so relentlessly depressing and joyless. Some people have ascribed this to scenarist Schumacher's EST training (as in the Werner Erhard seminars), but even that explanation can't completely account for the towering mess which is The Wiz. There's no place like home, said a wise man, and in this case the only musical version of The Wizard of Oz you should spend your time with in "home" video is, of course, the 1939 MGM offering.
The Wiz Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Wiz was a fairly ugly looking film in its original theatrical release, perhaps due to Lumet wanting a gritty ambience, and that same ugly garishness is reproduced on this AVC encoded Blu-ray, in 1080p and 1.85:1. There are moments that really bristle with excellent detail, and pop with nicely saturated color. Note the final segment with Diana Ross and Lena Horne, for example, where Horne's cobalt blue, gem encrusted costume sparkles brilliantly, and black levels are absolutely superb. In that same sequence, at the end of "Home," when Ross tilts her head back, you can seemingly see right through her nasal cavities into her cranium. At other times, though, this is a very soft looking transfer, with a lot of grain and drab looking colors. The opening segment in the Harlem apartment shows all of these tendencies. Some of the special effects look pretty cheesy in this new hi-def upgrade, with matte lines clearly visible and opticals adding to the already abundant grain structure.
The Wiz Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Despite its flaws, The Wiz does feature a charming, if truncated, score that is mostly brilliantly sung, and the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix does very, very well with this material. Ross, who is really a rather small voiced singer, manages to cut loose a couple of times, delivering some raw emotion on tunes like "Home," and she sounds magnificent on this DTS track. Jackson is also a joy to listen to, with none of the vocal tics which would dot his later performances. The orchestra sounds great as well, with full bodied brass and strings punching up Smalls' gospel-tinged melodies. Surround activity is decent, if not overwhelming, with some nice immersive moments, including the initial cyclone which dissoves into the "new, improved" Oz in New York City. Several of the group scenes especially have some nice surround activity. Dialogue is clear and easy to hear, and the overall balance in the musical segments is satisfying as well.
The Wiz Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Aside from the trailer and bookmarks, the only real supplement is the unfortunately named Wiz on Down the Road (SD; 12:30), a kind of interesting vintage featurette offering producer Rob Cohen waxing enthusiastic about the project, before everything went sour. There are lots of behind the scenes moments, including some shots of Lumet showing Jackson how to dance (and, no, I'm not kidding).
The Wiz Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Where are Kansas and/or Stephanie Mills when you really need them? This big budget misfire put an end to Ross' film career and didn't do much for Jackson's, either. Some of the music is charming, and a couple of the dance segments are engaging, but otherwise this film virtually defines "dud."
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The Wiz Blu-ray, News and Updates
• The Wiz Blu-ray Announced - August 25, 2010
Universal Studios Home Entertainment has announced that, on November 30, it will release the 1978 Sidney Lumet movie The Wiz, a re-imagining of the Wizard of Oz tale, based on the Broadway musical of the same title, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. It will ...
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