Wednesday, January 5, 2011

THE WIZ: Blu-Ray (Motown/Universal 1977) Universal Home Video

Overproduced at a staggering $24 million (of which only $13.6 was recouped), ambitiously conceived, fundamentally flawed and ultimately charm-free beyond most expectations, Motown Productions/Universal’s The Wiz (1977) – an all black revision of The Wizard of Oz (1939) - is an unabashedly sentimental work in progress that never attains the polish or promise of a ‘finished product’.

Ken Harper’s 1975 Broadway smash musical had run an impressive 1,672 performances. On screen, the film suffers greatly from its central miscasting of pop diva Diana Ross to play the ingenue, Dorothy. This is not to suggest that Ross is neither a legend nor a talent; merely to clarify that both her age and experience are in juxtaposition to the unassuming innocence and wonderment that the character of Dorothy requires.

Based on Frank L. Baum’s immortal children’s classic, on stage The Wiz opened with Dorothy as a simple Kansas farm girl. Inexplicably for the film, director Sidney Lumet relocates the action to New York City, effectively shattering the fragile homespun backdrop. Further to the detriment of blithe fantasy, Joel Schumacher’s script introduces Werner Erhard’s heavy academic prose into Baum’s light and unassuming fable –ladling thick a message of self-discovery.

The more fantastic production design elements for Oz are hampered by the incorporation of real – if slightly redressed – New York City locations; particularly the dilapidated wreckage of the 1964 State pavilion as a decaying Munchkinland. Hence, the one indisputable asset retained for the film is its eclectic score, herein superbly orchestrated by pop maestro Quincy Jones.

The story begins on a cold Thanksgiving in Harlem with 24 year old neurotic schoolteacher, Dorothy Gale (Diana Ross) refusing to leave her sequestered life with Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) and Uncle Henry (Stanley Greene). While cleaning up after dinner Dorothy’s dog, Toto runs out of the kitchen with Dorothy in hot pursuit. The two are caught in a magical whirlwind (badly conceived in SFX) and chucked – literally - into an alternate-universe of the New York City Dorothy has grown up in.

The Munchkins – a gaggle of graffiti-spraying reprobates introduce Dorothy to Miss One (Thelma Carpenter), the good witch/numbers runner who gives Dorothy a pair of silver slippers and urges her to follow the neon yellow brick road in search of the all powerful Wiz (Richard Pryor). Dorothy embarks on her journey, hooking up with jive-talking Scarecrow (Michael Jackson), carnival barker Tin-Man (Nipsey Russell, actually made of spare junk parts) and pimp-like Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross, hiding in one of the stone statues in front of the New York City Public Library).

Eventually, this foursome arrives at the Emerald City (or in this case, The World Trade Center) and are instructed by the Wiz to kill sweat shop witch, Evillene (Mabel King) in order to have their requests fulfilled. Evillene learns of this plot and sends her motorcycle gang, ‘The Flying Monkeys’ to sabotage Dorothy and her friends. After a spirited honky-tonk blues routine, Dorothy predictably destroys Evillene, leading to the 'strip-down' liberation of the Winkies – Evillene's minions.

Returning to the Emerald City, Dorothy learns that the Wiz is actually Herman Smith, a failed politico. Certain she will never return home, a reprieve for Dorothy arrives when Glinda (Lena Horne), an all powerful sorceress materializes to explain that all our heroine need do is ‘believe in herself’ to make dreams come true. Magically transported back to Harlem, Dorothy takes Toto in her arms and enters Aunt Em's apartment a full-fledged woman.

What is most heartbreaking about the film is how successfully it dismantles the utter bewilderment of the original story and more directly, the Broadway smash from whence it came; leaving behind only the faint tinny ring of a faux fairytale. To be certain, there are moments of sheer brilliance. The arrival of Dorothy and company to the Emerald City is spectacularly staged with hundreds of dancers in perfect choreography around the massive circular forecourt of The World Trade Center. Unfortunately most of the re-imagined recreations of New York’s celebrated landmarks – built at Astoria Studios in Queens - are not so much fanciful or miraculous as they prove to be oppressively weird and hallucinogenic.

As example, the Poppy Girls (in reference to the original poppy field sequence) are dope peddlers intent on drugging Dorothy and her compatriots to death. In the original film, the relative beauty of the poppies as plants made them so much more terrifying than their human counterparts because they were both enticing and dangerous. The Poppy Girls prove only to be the latter.

The original choice for the filmic Dorothy had been Broadway’s Stephanie Mills. It is rumoured that Diana Ross went over producer Berry Gordy’s head to secure her own participation in the film, leaving the original director, John Badham to comment “She’s a terrific actress and dancer, but she’s not the character. She’s not the little six year old girl.” Hence, Badham was replaced with Sidney Lumet.

Though nominated for 4 Oscars, critics universally panned The Wiz. Its’ staggering cost and meteoric failure at the box office was slightly offset when CBS paid $10 million for the rights to broadcast it on television. Today, The Wiz remains a gargantuan misfire in the musical genre. It's resurrection on Blu-Ray serves as illustration – ‘how not’ to transform a time-honoured bit of escapism into weighty inconsequential tripe.

Given the film’s limited appeal, Universal’s debut of The Wiz on Blu-Ray - when so many more worthy contenders lay in wait from their back catalogue - is a curious choice. The anamorphic image has been refurbished in true 1080p - visibly sharper, cleaner and brighter than the previously issued DVD. Colors, while dated, retain their gaudy allure. Occasional edge enhancement persistent on the DVD is almost - though not quite - eradicated on the Blu-Ray. Overall, the image will surely not disappoint.

The Blu-Ray's audio is the same 5.1 mix as the DVD. Fidelity during the musical sequences is exceptional, but dialogue continues to sound strident by direct comparison. Extras are limited to the same vintage featurette and original theatrical trailer made previously available.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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