A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 181 – The Wiz

The Wiz – August 28th, 2010

After watching the Muppet version of The Wizard of Oz this week we decided we really should own this version. We both enjoy it and it’s been ages since I saw it last. I think it was my mother who first introduced me to it, telling me she couldn’t hear the iconic Ease on Down the Road without singing along. And who can? I’m thrilled that the DVD we bought has a CD with it with that and a few of my other favorites, so I can get them nice and stuck in my head whenever I want. It’s the sort of movie I’d dance to if I had any dancing ability at all, but I don’t, so I just enjoy the people who do.

This is a fascinating movie to watch, having seen both another version of The Wizard of Oz and another stage-to-screen musical recently. It’s an entirely different creature from both, which I find really pretty cool. It’s far more expansive than The Producers was, making good use of huge sets and some impressive filming locations (like the World Trade Center plaza and the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island). There’s a real feeling of scale, which suits the alternate New York version of Oz really well, but also makes it clear that no, we’re not on a theater stage here. But then contrast it to the Muppet version of the story and the differences in the tone come out in full force. For one, the settings are vastly different, and for another that links to a huge difference in the character of Dorothy. Where Ashanti’s Dorothy was dying to get away from home, there’s nothing Diana Ross’s Dorothy wants more than to stay home where she’s comfortable. It leads to a very different journey.

One thing I noticed watching this now, there were definitely a lot of callbacks to the book. The Munchkins might be graffiti-themed in this version, but the dominant color of the set for the number, the lighting of it and the costumes, is blue. The Winkies, once they’re out of their red sweatshop costumes, wear yellow. The slippers are silver. They’re little things I suppose, but given how big a shift in setting this adaptation does, the details like the colors of the costumes really do make me smile. And they make the urban setting more Oz-like. I like this skewed version of New York City, adapted into Oz like an alternate universe, and I think I’ve mentioned my thing for alternate universes. The changes to the Oz portions are fun too. The Scarecrow is made of garbage, the Tin Man is a carnival barker, and the Cowardly Lion is hiding out in front of the New York Public Library. Instead of the Kalidahs, the group faces a subway where even the walls turn against them (in a scene that haunted me for years). Instead of a horrible castle the Wicked Witch has a sweat shop. It’s a great blending of two worlds that results in a fantastic setting for a quest.

Now, the story itself is pretty similar to any given adaptation of the book. Dorothy, transported to Oz, finds herself needing to get to the Wizard in the Emerald City. She gets a pair of magic shoes, follows the yellow brick road, meets up with three companions and eventually gets to her goal only to be given the task of dealing with a wicked witch. After defeating the witch she finds out the Wizard’s a fraud, then clicks her heels and heads back home. Oh, and everyone had what they needed all along! It’s the specifics that change. For the most part, the story is told well. Certainly they hit all the necessary plot points, and they created a great world to set it all in. Add that to the fantastic musical numbers and you’d think it would be flawless, right?

Sigh.

I do love the vast majority of this movie, but this evening I found myself noting a few flaws and then realized that what bothered me most ended up being part of a single problem. I’ve got a minor issue with the characterization of Dorothy, but it’s not that she’s twenty-four in the movie. And it’s not that she’s timid and nervous and introverted. I get that characterization. It’s her first song. There’s this whole thing about how she can’t share in the emotions of the people there at her aunt’s home for the holidays. The song doesn’t make her out as shy, it makes her out to be emotionally stunted. She’s set up to be thoroughly glued to home, while singing about how she can’t form emotional connections. That’s bizarre to me, and the song itself doesn’t feel like it fits the rest of the movie. And then I started paying attention to that. There are a few songs that don’t quite fit. And at the end? When I looked them up? Wouldn’t you know, they’re almost all additional numbers added to the movie. They’re the meandering schmaltzy numbers that seem to be trying to add character development to Dorothy but ended up boring me and making me tune out. And they take up what feels like an enormous amount of time that I think could have been better used in other ways.

Another issue connected to the pile’o’schmaltz and the time it all takes is that there are moments that seem to lack the impact they should have. For example, while I love A Brand New Day, the lead-up to it seems so truncated. Dorothy and company leave the Emerald City, get chased around a parking garage, and then they’re in Evillene’s sweat shop. It’s a great set and she’s got a great number to introduce herself prior to the garage scene, but once Dorothy gets there? Her friends get threatened, she breaks down and says she’ll give up the shoes, she pulls a fire alarm and hurrah! Dancing time! There’s no real tension there. It takes about five minutes to go from oppressive threats to jubilant dance number. It’s great that the Winkies (eventually wearing yellow bikinis) get freed and dance around, and it’s a great number, but the ratio of tension to celebration is oddly tipped to the celebration side. I think that’s true of a lot of the movie and I blame the meandering added numbers.

It’s really a pity that the movie gets bogged down in places. It takes away from everything the movie does well and gets right. I think it’s telling that when we put this in, I was super excited to see the meetings between Dorothy and her friends, and hear Ease on Down the Road and A Brand New Day and see the bizarre nightclub-like Emerald City sequence, and I’d totally forgotten the slower bits. Did I fast forward through them as a kid? The melting sewing machines in the sweat shop stayed with me, but not Dorothy singing about feeling. I’ll probably do the same now. I’ll remember the awesome singing and dancing and let the rest go.

August 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wiz

August 28, 2010

The Wiz

This movie makes me miss my friend Tez from grade school. Way back in the seventies when this came out Tez was one of my best friends. He and Kenny and Kim and I would spend every recess together (when the teachers forced me out of the loft in the library where I used to hide) climbing about on the jungle gym behind our school. We were “The Monkey Men.” (I may still have one of the cards we made for our little club.) In addition to being the coolest and the most athletic kid in our class Tez was a fantastic dancer and a huge, huge fan of Michael Jackson. He was the first one in our class to own the Thriller album (although of course we all owned it eventually.) I first saw this movie with him, probably around 1981 or so, and although almost everything in the movie that is cool and unique went right over my nine-year-old head I couldn’t help being infected by his enthusiasm for the movie.

My memories of that first viewing are full of confusion. I knew nothing of New York, so the Oz depicted here was totally alien to me. It was more frightening and strange than ever the Oz in the 1939 version was. Neither was I familiar with Motown or funk or anything to do with black culture in the seventies. I was at that age only just discovering that other families lived in ways different from mine. I remember being baffled and frightened by this movie with all its completely unfamiliar imagery. Even so I couldn’t help loving the music and excitement of the movie. How can you help but bop along to “Ease on Down the Road” and “Brand New Day?”

This movie is an amazing contrast to yesterday’s. As with The Producers this is an adaptation for the screen of a stage play, but this movie is so extravagant and such a thrilling spectacle that it overwhelms you. The big dance numbers featured here are bigger than anything that could be held by a mere stage. The sets are gargantuan – colossal. When Dorothy first arrives in Oz Munchkin Land is a big playground and the Munchkins are trapped by the Wicked Witch of the East in graffiti. The playground set dwarfs the dancers with their hula hoops and skateboards as they dance for joy at being released from their curse. The Emerald City itself is represented by a vast set on the World Trade Center plaza with hundreds of extras. Everything in this movie is a celebration of New York City and filmed on a scale that boggles the mind.

Let’s look at the Oz of the Wiz and how it is linked to New York. In this version of the story Dorothy is a young woman living with her aunt who hasn’t ever left the ghetto where they live. Aunt Em encourages her to go out and live, but Dorothy is a timid little thing and afraid of the big city. When she is whisked off to Oz she has to find that courage in herself as she has a grand adventure that travels through NYC landmarks. She finds the Scarecrow in a garden amongst the rubble in an abandoned lot in the ghetto (complete with crows which I don’t feel qualified to talk about with their clear reference to minstrelry.) The Tin man is in Coney Island. (I made a comment as we reached that part of the movie about Dorothy running into the Warriors, what with this being Coney Island in the seventies.) The Lion is one of the statues outside the New York City Library. The wild forests where the Lion proves his courage are the subway tunnels. The poppy fields are the decadent Times Square of the seventies, all sleaze and sex shops. And so on.

As a magical land for an epic adventure this sort of twisted and idealized New York City is a thrilling notion. It reminds me a little of the Dark Tower books of Stephen King. There’s this alternate world which has so much in common with our own and which actually tells us a little about the world that we live in.

Diana Ross as Dorothy is perfect. She is so fragile and terrified at the start of the movie that even a friendly family get-together practically sends her into a panic attack. By the end of the movie, with her final song “Home” she has become a powerful and self assured woman with such strength that even the Wizard himself begs her to help him. Diana is able to make this transformation entirely believable, and the way she completely commits herself to “Home,” belting it for all she is worth, really works for the whole arc of the movie.

Supporting her are Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow (the reason I first saw this movie, as I suspect it was for many people my age t the time.) Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man is a treat, particularly with his soulful “Slide Some Oil to Me.” Ted Ross fills out the bass in the quartet as the Cowardly Lion with a fun jazzy feel.

From start to end this is a thrilling, magical, overwhelming spectacle, with a great and important message about self confidence and the courage to live your own life. I’d like to thank Terrance Lawrence, wherever he is, for introducing me to it.

August 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment