Produced by Rob Cohen and directed by Sidney Lumet, The Wiz stars Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Mabel King, Theresa Merritt, Thelma Carpenter, Lena Horne, and Richard Pryor. The film's story was reworked from William F. Brown's Broadway libretto by Joel Schumacher, and Quincy Jones supervised the adaptation of Charlie Smalls & Luther Vandross' songs for film. A handful of new songs, written by Jones and the songwriting team of Nickolas Ashford & Valerie Simpson, were added for the film version. Upon its original theatrical release, The Wiz was a critical and commercial failure, and marked the end of the resurgence of African-American films that began with the blaxploitation movement of the 1970s.
While cleaning up after the dinner party, Dorothy's dog Toto runs out the open kitchen door into a violent snowstorm. Dorothy succeeds in retrieving him, but finds herself trapped in the snowstorm. A magical whirlwind - the work of Glinda the Good Witch (Lena Horne) - materializes and transports the woman and her dog to Oz. Upon her entrance into Oz, Dorothy smashes through an electric "Oz" sign, which falls upon and kills Evermean, the Wicked Witch of the East. As a result, Dorothy frees the Munchkins who populate the park into which Dorothy lands; the Munchkins had been transformed by Evermean into graffiti for "tagging" the park walls.
Dorothy soon meets The Munchkins' main benefactor, Miss One the Good Witch of the North (Thelma Carpenter), a magical "numbers runner" who gives Dorothy Evamean's powerful silver slippers. However, the frightened Dorothy desperately wants to get home. Miss One urges her to follow the yellow brick road to the Emerald City and find the mysterious "Wiz", whom Miss One believes holds the power to send Dorothy back to Harlem. The good witch and the Munchkins then disappear, and Dorothy is left to search for the yellow brick road on her own.
The next morning, Dorothy happens upon a Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) made of garbage, whom she befriends. The two of them discover the yellow brick road, and happily begin to follow it together, Scarecrow hoping the Wiz might be able to give him the one thing he feels he lacks — a brain. Along the way to the Emerald City, Dorothy, Toto, and Scarecrow meet the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell) a turn-of-the-century amusement park mechanical man, and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross), a vain dandy banished from the jungle who hid inside one of the stone lions in front of the New York Public Library. The Tin Man and Lion join Dorothy and Scarecrow on their quest to find the Wiz, hoping to gain a heart and courage, respectively. Before the five adventurers reach the Emerald City, they must face obstacles such as a crazy Subway Peddler (a homeless man) with evil monsters in his control, and "Poppy" Girls (a reference to the poppy field from the original story) who attempt to put Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion to sleep with magic dusting powders.
Finally reaching the Emerald City (an analogue of the real-life World Trade Center plaza), the quintet gain passage into the city because of Dorothy's ownership of the silver shoes, and marvel at the spectacle of the city and its dancers. Dorothy and her friends gain an audience with the Wiz (Richard Pryor) who appears to them as a giant fire-breathing metallic head. The Wiz will only grant the travelers' wishes if they kill Evillene (Mabel King) the horrible Wicked Witch of the West, who runs a sweatshop in the sewers of New York. Evillene learns of Dorothy's quest to kill her, and sends out the Flying Monkeys (a motorcycle gang) to kidnap Dorothy and her friends.
After an extended chase, the Flying Monkeys succeed in capturing their prey, and bring the five interlopers back to Evillene. The Wicked Witch tortures the Lion, dismembers the Scarecrow, and flattens the Tin Man, in hopes of making Dorothy give her the silver shoes. When Evillene threatens to throw Toto into a fiery cauldron, Dorothy nearly gives in - until the Scarecrow hints to her to activate a fire sprinkler switch, which she does. The sprinklers put out the fire, but also melt and destroy Evillene, who is "allergic to water". With the Witch gone, her spells lose their power: the Winkies are freed from their costumes (revealing humans underneath), and their sweatshop tools disappear. The thankful Winkies rejoice in dance and praise Dorothy as their emancipator, and the Flying Monkeys give Dorothy and her friends a triumphant ride back to the Wiz.
Upon arriving back in Emerald City, the quintet take a back door into the Wiz's quarters, and discover that the Wiz is a "phony". The "great and powerful Oz" is actually Herman Smith, a failed politician from Atlantic City, New Jersey who was transported to Oz when a balloon he was flying to promote his campaign to become the city dogcatcher was lost in a storm. Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are distraught that they will never receive their respective brains, heart, and courage, but Dorothy makes them realize that they had these things all along. Just as it seems as if Dorothy will never be able to go home again, Glinda the Good Witch appears and implores Dorothy to find her way home by searching within and using her silver slippers. Dorothy offers to help Herman if he'll agree to reveal himself, which he refuses. After thanking Glinda and saying good-bye to her friends, Dorothy takes Toto in her arms, thinks of home and the things she loves most about it, and after clicking her heels three times finds herself back in her neighborhood. A changed woman, Dorothy carries Toto back to their apartment and closes the door.
After film director John Badham learned that Ross was going to play the part of Dorothy, he decided not to direct the film, and Cohen replaced him with Sidney Lumet. Of his decision not to direct The Wiz, John Badham recalled telling Cohen that he thought Ross was "a wonderful singer. She's a terrific actress and a great dancer, but she's not this character. She's not the little six-year-old girl Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Though 20th Century Fox had financially backed the stage musical, they ended up exercising their first refusal rights to the film production, which gave Universal an opening to finance the film. Initially, Universal was so excited about the film's prospects that they did not set a budget for production.
Joel Schumacher's script for The Wiz was influenced by Werner Erhard's teachings and his Erhard Seminars Training ("est") movement, as both Schumacher and Diana Ross were "very enamored of Werner Erhard." "Before I knew it," said Rob Cohen, "the movie was becoming an est-ian fable full of est buzzwords about knowing who you are and sharing and all that. I hated the script a lot. But it was hard to argue with [Ross] because she was recognizing in this script all of this stuff that she had worked out in est seminars." Schumacher spoke positively of the results of the est training, stating that he would always be "eternally grateful for learning that I was responsible for my life." However, he also complained that "everybody stayed exactly the way they were and went around spouting all this bullshit." Of est and Erhard references in the film itself, The Grove Book of Hollywood notes that the speech delivered by the Glinda the Good Witch at the end of the film was "a litany of est-like platitudes," and the book also makes est comparisons to the song "Believe in Yourself."
During production, Lumet felt that the finished film would be "an absolutely unique experience that nobody has ever witnessed before." When asked about any possible influence from MGM's popular 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, Lumet stated that "there was nothing to be gained from [the 1939 film] other than to make certain we didn't use anything from it. They made a brilliant movie, and even though our concept is different - they're Kansas, we're New York; they're white, we're black, and the score and the books are totally different - we wanted to make sure that we never overlapped in any area."
Michael Jackson, a former Motown star who by the start of development on The Wiz in 1977, had left Motown for Epic Records with his brothers The Jacksons, was cast as the Scarecrow. Jackson was dedicated to the role, and watched videotapes of gazelles, cheetahs and panthers in order to learn graceful movements for his part. Ted Ross and Mabel King were brought in to reprise their respective roles from the stage musical, while Nipsey Russell was cast as the Tin Man. Lena Horne, mother-in-law to Sidney Lumet during the time of production, was cast as Glinda the Good Witch, and comedian Richard Pryor portrayed "The Wiz".
Quincy Jones was the musical supervisor and music producer for the film. He later wrote that he initially did not want to work on the film, but did it as a favor to Sidney Lumet. The film production marked Jones' first time working with Michael Jackson, and Jones would later produce three hit albums for Jackson: Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. Jones recalled working with Jackson as one of his favorite experiences from The Wiz, and spoke of Jackson's dedication to his role, comparing his acting style to Sammy Davis, Jr.
Michael Jackson's performance as the Scarecrow was one of the only positively reviewed elements of the film, with critics noting that Jackson possessed "genuine acting talent" and "provided the only genuinely memorable moments." Of the results of the film, Jackson stated: "I don't think it could have been any better, I really don't. In 1980, Jackson stated that his time working on The Wiz was "my greatest experience so far...I'll never forget that." The film received a positive critique for its elaborate set design, and the book American Jewish Filmmakers noted that it "features some of the most imaginative adaptations of New York locales since the glory days of the Astaire-Rogers films. In a 2004 review of the film, Christopher Null wrote positively of Ted Ross and Richard Pryor's performances. However, Null's overall review of the film was critical, and he wrote that other than the song "Ease on Down the Road", "..the rest is an acid trip of bad dancing, garish sets, and a Joel Schumacher-scripted mess that runs 135 agonizing minutes. In a 2005 piece in The Washington Post, the article described Diana Ross's singing as "a marvel".
The Wiz was later nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Original Music Score and Best Cinematography, although it did not win in any of those categories.
|Diana Ross||Dorothy Gale|
|Theresa Merritt||Aunt Emma|
|Stanley Greene||Uncle Henry|
|Lena Horne||Glinda, the Good Witch of the South|
|Thelma Carpenter||Miss One, the Good Witch of the North|
|Nipsey Russell||Tin Man|
|Ted Ross||Cowardly Lion|
|Richard Pryor||The Wiz|
|Mabel King||Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West|