Thirty-six years ago today, on October 24, 1978, a movie called The Wiz opened in theaters nationwide. Billed as a musical extravaganza, the film was a new take on the classic L. Frank Baum novel The Wizard of Oz, most famously filmed in 1939, and was also the movie version of a smash-hit Broadway musical that premiered in 1975. It told the basic Wizard of Oz story, but the land of Oz was sort of a fantasy version of New York, and Kansas was transposed to Harlem. The film’s cast was entirely African-American, and the producers sought to capitalize on the African-American film boom of the 70s. But alas, The Wiz was ill-fated. Costing $24 million to make–the equivalent of $85 million in 2013 dollars–the film melted at the box office like the Wicked Witch of the West at Dorothy’s feet. It was the sort of colossal bomb that Hollywood hastens to forget.
But, despite the fact that it was a bad movie–and it clearly is–there’s a lot of very interesting stuff about The Wiz lurking under the surface. You can make an argument that its failure ended not one but two eras in cinema: the era of the glitzy big-budget musical, and that of what is known, not entirely politically correctly (these days), as the “Blacksploitation” boom. The Wiz also began a professional association between two of its participants that had an effect on popular culture of almost inestimable magnitude: the musical pairing of Michael Jackson and songwriter/producer Quincy Jones.
The original trailer for The Wiz. Looks like a fun movie, doesn’t it? Trust me. It’s not.
The story of The Wiz begins with Motown Productions, a film/TV studio that was an offshoot of the hugely profitable Motown record label from Detroit, specializing in blues and R&B especially from African-American artists. In 1972 Motown produced Lady Sings the Blues, the classic biopic of Billie Holliday, in which Supremes superstar Diana Ross played Billie. When the Broadway version of The Wiz proved a hit, a movie version was an attractive prospect for the company. Diana Ross wanted on board. In fact, she wanted to play Dorothy. Although almost no one thought she was right for the role, she wanted it so bad that she made an end run around her Motown producer and inked a deal with Universal to finance the picture on the condition that she play Dorothy. The original director, John Badham (fresh off the hit Saturday Night Fever), quit the movie in protest. He was replaced by workhorse auteur Sidney Lumet, famous for Network (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”)
Things got worse after this rocky beginning. Joel Schumacher–this was 20 years before his infamous nipples-on-the-Batsuit debacle–was brought in to write the script. Schumacher and Ross were both then devotees of a self-help guru named Werner Erhard, who championed a system called “est.” Miraculously, “est” references started popping up everywhere in the script of The Wiz. Furthermore, Universal was so convinced The Wiz was going to be the most popular musical of all time that they declared money was no object and abandoned budget controls. Thus, even before a frame of film was shot, The Wiz had become (A) a demanding star’s vanity project, (B) a propaganda vehicle for a self-help guru, and (C) a financial boondoggle. Can you think of another film with these characteristics that went down to an epic crash-and-burn failure? (*cough*Battlefield Earth*cough*)
Michael Jackson’s performance as the Scarecrow was one of the few elements of The Wiz that critics praised. He was 20 when the film was made.
The cast was at least talented. Besides the questionable choice of Ross as Dorothy, the film offered comedian Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, Lena Horne as Glinda, Richard Pryor as the Wizard of Oz, and a young former child singing sensation named Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow. This casting choice was the most interesting. Jackson was not even 20 when he got the role, and trying to make the difficult transition from the darling of the Jackson Five to a solo adult singing career. The Wiz would be his first film. Jackson put his heart and soul into the role of the Scarecrow, working endlessly on graceful dance moves for the film’s big musical numbers.
While filming The Wiz, Jackson made the acquaintance of Quincy Jones, who was mixing the film’s musical score. The two of them hit it off professionally and Jones agreed that he would produce Jackson’s next solo album once the film wrapped.
By the time it did, The Wiz was a bloated monster. At $24 million it was the most expensive musical ever made. It hit the silver screen on October 24, 1978. The reviews were savage, being panned by everybody from newspaper and TV critics to Hollywood historians and even Ray Bolger, who played the Tin Man in the 1939 movie. The suction from the film’s hard foundering damaged the careers of many of the principals, and in fact ended Diana Ross’s; she never made another film. Universal took a financial bath on the picture. After 1978 studios were very reluctant to risk big money on musicals.
If Michael Jackson hadn’t done The Wiz in 1978, would he have been able to do this in 1985?
The Wiz also ended the brief heyday of what was known as the “black film boom.” The Wiz was not a classic “Blacksploitation” picture like Shaft or Blacula, but it came out of the same set of commercial and creative impetuses that sought to make movies with primarily African-American casts and market them as being of special interest to the black community. It’s clear that after The Wiz, studios were no longer interested in making and marketing pictures like this anymore, which further decreased the already low visibility of African-American representation in popular movies. Plenty of African-American directors and films with largely African-American casts arose in the 80s and beyond, but it’s difficult to call a movie like Do The Right Thing or Boys In The Hood a “black film” in the same way that The Wiz was supposed to be a “black film.” The racial politics of the film industry has always been complicated, after 1978 every bit as much as before, but The Wiz did represent a change.
Certainly one of The Wiz‘s enduring legacies was arguably the entire career of Michael Jackson. He was one of the few, along with Sidney Lumet, who emerged from the disaster with his career unscathed; in fact his performance as the Scarecrow was one of the few elements of the movie critics generally praised. The album Jackson made with Quincy Jones in 1979 was Off The Wall. It was a hit, due in no small part to Jones’s slick production, and established Michael as a vocal star in his own right apart from his family. The next album they made together was Thriller, possibly the single most important pop culture object to come out of the 1980s. The rest is history.
I have not seen The Wiz in at least 20 years. Remembering how bad it was, I have no desire to. But it certainly did change the world of arts, music and movies in some pretty profound ways. That’s not a bad accomplishment for what could have been just another bad movie.