A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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 | , , ,

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