Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a fan of unusual interpretations of classic tales – from Homer’s Odyssey in depression era Mississippi to Hamlet in 10th century China – so the prospect of a Motown version of The Wizard of Oz filled me with as much excitement as Arnie voicing Darth Vader.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Diana Ross stars as Dorothy, a young girl from Harlem who’s “never been South of 125th Street” until she is transported to Oz in the middle of a blizzard. She lands in Munchkin Land, where she encounters full-sized munchkins, presumably to the disappointment of America’s unemployed black dwarves. She encounters the familiar Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, played by Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell and Ted Ross, who seek to rectify their respective incompetencies with the aid of the famous Wiz (Richard Pryor). To get there they have to find his home in the shallow, fashion obsessed world of Emerald City, along a yellow brick road. They also encounter a sweat shop-running wicked witch with such an aversion to bad news she sings a song about it.
The Oz of this movie is a far cry from the 1939 original, with the iconic locations of the story adapted to fit iconic New York scenery. The result is sets which feel like a modern city, run-down and sometimes scary, with a hint of magic beneath the surface. It’s an idea that became common in Michael Jackson’s music videos, and one that invests this film with a completely unique look and feel. We see real New York bridges, buildings and subways with yellow bricks and mystical creatures festooned on their exteriors.
The film has no “it’s all a dream” moment in the final act, instead relying on the similarity of Oz to Dorothy’s home city to draw the comparisons. This might sound like a way of draining the magic from this iconic story, but in actual fact it works brilliantly. The similarity to our world also gives writer Joel Schumacher the license to add a satirical edge to the tale.
The music and choreography is of the spectacular standard you’d expect in a movie from Motown, resulting in a film packed with energy from beginning to end. Ross shows herself to be supreme in the lead role, with the incredible vocals of her petite frame being matched by her lively performance. The rest of the cast are similarly good, with Jackson’s physical commitment to the scarecrow being particularly notable.
Written by Joel Schumacher, directed by Sidney Lumet, starring two of the greatest pop stars and one of the greatest comedians of the last 50 years, The Wiz boasts impressive talent. But the reason it works is because it manages to be what all good musicals should be: a lot of fun.