(On Cable TV, February 2019) The 1970s were a dark, sad decade for movie musicals, and The Wiz does nothing to change my mind about it. This musical remake of The Wizard of Oz uses black actors and a modern-day urban setting, but seems determined to waste both its premise and its potential. There was a lot of it to start with, what with a cast that starts with Diana Ross and then goes on to Richard Prior and Michael Jackson. The surprisingly slow start sets the tone for the disappointment to come, what with Ross looking far too old to play a teenager, and a film that appears determined to suppress any of her natural sex appeal. It gets better once she starts to sing, but not all that much. Michael Jackson fares much better in what is probably his finest screen role, nearly unrecognizable as the Scarecrow, but with his very distinctive voice shining through. Meanwhile, Pryor is in-keeping with the impact of the movie, a disappointment as the Wizard that undermines even an already-undermined character. As a clone of its original inspiration, The Wiz isn’t all that good: Occasionally too scary for kids, far too dull for adults, it also takes many of the original film’s most satisfying (but not necessarily the most realistic) plot points and blurs them into meaninglessness. The production design can be imaginative and ambitious at times, but it’s not successful at what it does. The ending is exceptionally disappointing, running three musical numbers too long and delving into cheap pop philosophy to overstate what was perfectly obvious in the original. The only musical number that works, both on a musical level and a narrative one is the insanely catchy “Ease on Down”, which is worth saving from the rest of this overlong misfire. Reading about the film’s complicated production history is instructive in understanding why it ended up being so disappointing, but this is the result we’re stuck with. (Even Xanadu was more fun than this, if not necessarily more coherent or less dated to the disco era.) Alas, the damage done by The Wiz didn’t stop at the movie itself or its audience: Historically, this film was a notorious flop in every way, and is seen as having led to the end of the era for black-focused films as reinvigorated by the blaxploitation movement. If that’s correct, The Wiz has a lot more to answer for than for wasting more than two hours of everyone’s time even forty years later. (Minus five minutes for “Ease on Down”, because it’s that good.)
(On VHS, September 2001) Occasionally interesting documentary about what’s arguably the most influential music video of all time. The focus on special effects is great, and so’s the segment on shooting. The documentary, however, is padded and hampered by several overlong excerpts of other videos, a John Landis film and a Grammy performance. Obviously there only to bolster the documentary’s running time. The image quality was poor, though that might have been a flaw of the older rental cassette we viewed. For fans.