What the hell? Is the world insane?
In short, this is the blaxploitation Motown version of The Wizard of Oz
, starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson. Critically and commercially, it failed so badly that it killed the blaxploitation genre. This is outrageous. It pretty much roasted every synapse in my brain. This thing is abso-flaming-lutely brilliant and I'd recommend it to the world, the moon and all the stars. It's a fascinating reinvention, it's funny, it's touching and it's got musical numbers the like of which you just don't get in movies. Personally I prefer it by far to the 1939 version. I don't even need to consider that. Its urban jungle version of Oz is trippy and enthralling, I find its protagonists more emotionally engaging and as for the soundtrack... well, does it even need saying? It's 1978 Motown. You could fly across the Atlantic on the lung power of this cast. If you're not blown back by the songs in this film, you're clinically dead.
To be fair, everyone seems to think the film wasn't as good as the 1975 Broadway original with Stephanie Mills. If I'd seen that too, I'd probably agree, but I haven't. That show won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and was reinterpreting L. Frank Baum to reflect black American culture. This works brilliantly. It gives the story force. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion all seem to have been hit much harder by life than their 1939 counterparts, which for me made the show's aspirational message moving. It's about pride, standing up for yourself and not letting the world grind you down. "Ease on down the road" annihilated me afresh every time. As Dorothy and her friends danced jauntily down the yellow brick road, I'd find it oddly emotional (as well as being cool as hell).
Personally I'd guess that this dark, slightly sinister New York version of Oz is perfect for movies. For some it's a sticking point. One comment I've seen is "too scary for children, and too silly for adults." It's certainly garish and overblown, but it's also set in a recognisable world of graffiti, cabs, fire hydrants and so on. Much of it was simply shot on location. You'll feel you know its world, but then it'll turn around and morph into something insane like the evil Disney underground station or the graffiti men coming alive. Note the literal Big Apple. (I guessed on seeing that that we were about to meet the talking trees, but no, it's just a gag.) I've never seen a fantasy like it. Theatre has many strengths, but I can't believe that any stage version could compete with the movie for this kind of total immersion insanity.
The most common criticism of the movie involves Diana Ross. Motown bought the movie rights planning for Stephanie Mills to reprise her stage success, but Ross fought hard for the lead role and won it. She was 34 years old at the time, but her argument was that the role of Dorothy was "ageless". No one seems to like her. She sounds whispery and breathy at the beginning (although that's clearly deliberate) and she's not acting even to the level of co-stars like Michael Jackson, let alone the proper actors who'd made it across from the Broadway version.
Guess what, though? I don't care. Yes, I must sound like a gigantic hypocrite, but I don't. This film is a sensory overload, both visual and auditory, and at times you could say it's being choreographed rather than acted. Yes, Ross isn't making a huge impression on the movie, but I thought she fulfilled her function. She's strange and whiny at the beginning, but this goes away later and for me I thought she strengthened the themes of self-respect and finding yourself. This is a damaged Dorothy who desperately needs her horizons broadened, just like everyone says, and I loved seeing her find herself when trying to help the Scarecrow, for instance.
Besides, this isn't the kind of acting you watch for David Lean eyebrow twitches. It's a film about grandstanding performances and material that's meant to be blasting you through the back of your seat. It's bold, colourful and all about energy. Michael Jackson is surprisingly good as the Scarecrow, while as for his song... wow. That boy could sing. Nipsey Russell and Ted Ross are both funny and hugely entertaining as the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. "Slide Some Oil To Me" is a joy to listen to, an absolute joy, while I love what Ted Ross is doing with some magnificently overblown dialogue. He's taking language that at times is practically Shakespeare and making it delicious and utterly contemporary.
It's not perfect. The pacing's off in the third act. The Wicked Witch of the West gets introduced and killed all in the same scene (eh?), whereas the last ten minutes or so drag on a tad with all that stuff about believing in yourself. I'm not arguing with the message, mind you. On the contrary I adore it, but I also think the finale is wallowing in it a little. While I'm looking for things that might be disliked, I should add that there a couple of scenes here made even me blink. The Four Crows are kind of disturbing, while the fashion-following narcissists of the Emerald City hurt my eyes. However you can't accuse the film of only going halfway on its chosen artistic direction.
Apart from that though, it's unbelievable.
The music! Did I mention the music? The first song is from Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) wrapping the film in one of those voices I'd kill to have, except that I'd look ridiculous because I'm not black. She's like James Earl Jones, except that she's singing. The Good Witch of the North (Thelma Carpenter) is another lady with a voice that grabs you and never lets go. I could go on like this forever. How many movies sound like this? How many movies sound like even one per cent of this?
Then there are the "you have got to be kidding me" credits. A Motown Production was the start of it, but it never stopped knocking me sideways. Michael Jackson? Diana Ross? Richard Pryor?!? My American friends were also getting excited about Nipsey Russell and on the evidence of this film I'd say he fully deserves it. Okay, yes, I can just about imagine all of those together... but directed by Sidney Lumet? Sorry, did I miss something? That wouldn't be the Oscar-nominated director of 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and The Verdict? Yup, it's him. As for the screenplay, that's by Joel Schumacher. Oh, and there's makeup design by Stan Winston (Terminator
, Avatar, John Carpenter's Thing
). You couldn't make it up, could you?
This film destroyed me. I fell in love with it, with its inspirational message and its broken but dazzling protagonists. I'm crazy for Michael Jackson's scarecrow. Ted Ross and Nipsey Russell I could watch all day. As for Diana Ross, all the haters can go jump off a cliff. I love her damaged Dorothy. I think she's great for the film and gives it something unique. She's fragile, hesitant and afraid to believe in herself, which makes her emotional journey more meaningful and makes her the perfect leader for the Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man. I should warn you that most people don't seem to have shared my emotional reaction to this film, but you'll have a whale of a time if you can find some of what I got from it. It's a film about joy, hope, learning to believe in yourself and dancing like a crazy man to seventies music.
A 1978 all-black Motown version of The Wizard of Oz
, starring Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. It's a must-watch.