The Wiz

Year: 1978
Studio: Universal
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: William F Braum/Joel Schumacher/L Frank Baum
Cast: Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Richard Pryor, Ted Ross, Lena Horne

Sidney Lumet apparently directed It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World based on a bet that he couldn't direct a comedy, so a musical might have been further proof either to himself or the business that he could do anything.

And I kind of liked it. At first the idea of mashing up the Motown-flavoured cultural scene of New York in the 1970s with The Wizard of Oz might seem ridiculous, but the elements are so disparate putting them together really works.

The cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) is found amid the lion statues of the public library. The garbage cans, lights and other fixtures of the subway (through which the yellow brick road leads) come to life and pursue the heroes, the monsters in the thoroughly modern dark wood. The Wicked Witch of the West runs a clothing sweatshop and the crows tormenting the Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) are jive dandies in zoot suit apparel. The munchkins are released from the Wicked Witch of the East's bondage after being stuck living in the walls as graffiti art. Manhattan is the Emerald City and The World Trade Center is the Wizard's stronghold.

Young Dorothy (Diana Ross) has never left Brooklyn and yearns for a more exciting life, but finds herself too nervous to leave the apartment she shares with her family most of the time. But when her dog Toto bolts down the stairs of her apartment building and out into a storm, fate intervenes. A tornado whirls down the street, picking her up and dropping her into a fantasyland amongst the tenements of the outer boroughs and the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

The story basically follows that of the original, but someone steeped in black New York life in the 70s (Charlie Smalls, who composed the original stage musical) has taken every character, subplot, setting and trope and given them clever urban twists. If anything it goes to show how strong the archetype of leaving home in search of adventure is in American storytelling – see everything from Tom Sawyer to Star Wars.

It also reminded me a little of The Black Hole, the last of the sci-fi era films with big, expansive practical sets. Every set in the film – from the park covered in graffiti when Dorothy meets the munchkins to the Wicked Witch's sweatshop – gives the movie a lot of room to breathe, not just for the kinetic musical numbers but for a general sense of space and belonging.

If all you know about the movie is the song Ease on Down the Road, it's a good example of the performance and moviemaking arts at the time and a good example of art begetting art.

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