Tonight, NBC will ease on down the road with a live musical version of The Wiz, based off the groundbreaking 1975 musical. Featuring an all-black cast, the show nearly swept the Tonys winning seven of its eight nominations, including Best Musical. It also introduced us to a young Stephanie Mills and to the belting standard, "Home." So it was a natural fit to be made into a movie. Or so it seemed.
The background story of The Wiz is full of so much shade and chicanery it warrants a story of its own. Basically, Motown was producing the film, and head honcho Berry Gordy wanted Stephanie Mills to reprise her role in the film. However, a 33-year-old Diana Ross decided that she wanted to play Dorothy so the character went from a young girl living in Kansas to a grown woman living in Harlem. But hey, it was 1977, and Diana Ross was the baddest bitch on the planet. Noted film critic Pauline Kael called Ross's efforts to get The Wiz to the screen "perhaps the strongest example of sheer will in film history."
So was it worth it? You bet your yellow brick road it was. Ross is fantastic, if miscast, and this was perhaps the last glimpse of Michael Jackson's youthful, uthreatening virtuoisty before the all-consuming superstardom that shortly followed. With The Wiz Live! premiering tonight, let's remember how awesome, if flawed, the orignal film was. Here are 11 reasons The Wiz is a goddamn classic.
Diana Ross's Afro
This is the smallest the diva's hair has ever been, but as a 24-year-old school teacher struggling to find her way in the world, Miss Ross's ususal hair theatrics might have been a bit out of place. Welcome, but out of place.
There was a time when people slept on Michael Jackson. By 1978, he had left the Jackson 5 to pursue solo stardom but had yet to prove himself. His first blockbuster album, Off the Wall, was still a year away when MJ dazzled audiences as The Scarecrow, garnering some of the only positive reviews for the film. MJ would never star in another movie, but the effect of seeing him and Diana Ross together is essentially the same as if Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli had made a movie together: a gay wet dream.
Very few musicals can hold a candle to The Wiz's original score by Charlie Smalls (with a little help from Luther Vandross, who wrote "Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day"), but Quincy Jones contributed a few new songs for the film, along with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Q also served as musical director, marking the first time he worked with Michael Jackson--the duo would later go on to produce Off the Wall, Thriller and Bad.
You want to talk legends? Lena Horne was knocking down barriers in Hollywood before Diana Ross was even born, so her cameo as Glinda the Good Witch--a nurturing, maternal figure--seems fitting. After all, she birthed that entire cast. I guess that's why those adorably creepy star babies are hanging around.
The Emerald City sequence is a personal favorite if only for all the voguing. But just when you get settled on green as the color for the season, the great and powerful Wiz decides red is in--to at least one queen's delight.
Turns out The Wiz is more particular than Anna Wintour because he soon grows tired of the Ruby City and calls for a golden age.
That's Quincy Jones at the piano, btw.
The Production Values
The Wiz cost $24 million to produce--the most expensive film musical ever, at the time--and made little over half that at the box office. Sure, it might have been deemed a critical and commercial failure upon its release. Sure, it may have been blamed for the end of the blaxpoloitationcinema movement. Sure, it also might have killed Diana Ross's once promising film career. But...well, it looks awesome.
It's One of the Best Stoner Films Ever
There is some really trippy shit happening in The Wiz. The land of Oz is New York City on acid (and/or just the '70s) where subway columns come to life and try to snatch your natural.
Where creepy accoridan monsters steal your joy.
And where dancing prostitutes blow opium in your face. But at least those dancing prostitutes give you a good show before drugging you. Classic New York.
The Half-Naked "Brand New Day" Dancers
I don't know, but something just feels right about seeing Michael Jackson dancing in a sea of men in bikini briefs.
Any movie that's been almost universally panned for 40 years, yet still managed to nab four Oscar nominations and achieve cult status can't be all that bad. In fact, The Wiz is pretty great. It's opulent. It owns everything. It's way over the top, far too long, and the Diana Ross casting is still confusing--although I respect the hell out of Miss Ross's conviction. Like all overwhelmingly derided films, The Wiz has a charm about it that is undeniable. So NBC, don't lose the feeling that it had.
How will The Wiz Live! hold up? Find out tonight when Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige and an all-star cast feel a brand new day at 8pm ET on NBC.
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