Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In Defense Of: The Wiz

I typically reserve this particular series for films I like in defiance of a larger critical consensus against them, such as the surprisingly good It's Pat, or my last review, the criminally underrated Return To Oz. I was sort of hesitant to talk about this movie in this context, because every time I bring it up to people, I get nothing but positive reactions to it. Though it was a critical and commercial failure at the time that many cite as the end of Blaxploitation as a genre (a fact they apparently forgot to tell Tyler Perry), it has since gained a remarkable cult following, so I wasn't sure if The Wiz really qualified for this section of the blog. And yet, I think my opinion of the film might just be controversial enough to justify a full throated defense. After watching it again for the first time in say four or five years, I think The Wiz might actually be better than the original Wizard of Oz.

Now, if you read my defense of Return to Oz, you might have reasonably come away with the erroneous impression that I dislike the original Wizard of Oz. Honestly, I don't. I recognize its iconic status and appreciate its stamp on popular culture and can enjoy it to a certain extent even today, even if I think the story suffers from the limitations of the era in which it was made, when complexity all too often took a back seat to spectacle. I liked it enough to spend quite some time on a treatment for a sequel, if that says anything. The original Wizard of Oz is a movie that I would say is good for its time. The thing is, I never think that's a valid argument in favor of something. Cavemen were good for their time, but if any of them were still walking around today, they'd be completely useless. For me, the difference between good and truly great art is the ability to stand the test of time, and even in light of how ridiculously trapped in the 70's it is, I still think the way The Wiz tackles this material makes it far and away the superior film.

The criticism I hear most about this movie is that Diana Ross is miscast as Dorothy, that she's too old or too serious, but I think that charge is based on an unfair standard, which assumes that any portrayal of this character is bad to the extent that it is unlike the Judy Garland performance. I don't think Ross is too old for the role anymore than I think Faruza Balk was too young for it, as I think there's enough room to play around with something like this as long as the essentials of the character are maintained, and in the case of the Wiz, I would say it does a better job all around as far as casting and characterization. The Dorothy of the original film is such a passive character that I can't bring myself to care about her. The whole movie is like that really, with a group of people who just walk around, watching things happen around them, never really taking the initiative to move the plot forward. Ross' Dorothy doesn't just happen upon oddball friends who join her quest, she actively saves them from various predicaments and cares for them, and you can easily see why they care for her. Ross brings a power and emotional resonance to the role that Garland never did, and ultimately comes across as a much more confidant and identifiable character as a result.

The supporting cast is also so much better. Michael Jackson's Scarecrow has a vulnerability that is instantly touching and never as goofy as Ray Bolger, Nipsy Russell's Tin Man is insanely charming from minute one, and Ted Ross imbues the Cowardly Lion with a neurotic weakness that I actually feel sorry for, as opposed to the broad wackiness of Bert Lahr's stuttering doufus. Even through the make-up, these feel like real people with dramatic weight that the original cast never even tried to achieve. Something I didn't get to in my Oz, The Great And Powerful review is how the whole point of the Wizard character seemed to be subverted to tell the story of the new film. The revelation that the Wizard is just a man behind the curtain isn't supposed to be a heartwarming sentiment about the benefits of faith and mystery. What the wizard is doing is wrong, and cruel, and while Frank Morgan's bumbling manipulator is amusing, the comical portrayal of the situation almost lets him off the hook for his actions.

Richard Pryor's Wizard is by contrast shown to be a broken and craven man who understands the disgusting weight of his actions but is too weak to come clean. His deeds have left him sad and alone behind his curtain, and he is shamed, but at the same time offered a chance at redemption by the very characters who should want his head. In short, he is more complex and interesting in the ten minutes he's on screen than in the entire big budget movie released about the same character, or even the original performance that inspired them both. And speaking of his victims, I love how in this incarnation, our heroes don't wait for this charlatan wizard to give them gifts representing qualities they already had, but dismiss him immediately and realize this truth for themselves.  The only characters that I would say are better in the original are the two witches, and only because they are such a smaller part of the narrative in the later film that the original gives them more time to shine.

Do I even have to argue that the music is better in The Wiz? Don't get me wrong, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" is a classic and the rest of the songs in the original are charming enough, but in the face of every Motown powerhouse of the 70's including Michael motherfucking Jackson in his prime, nothing is going to measure up. Admittedly, the Wizard of Oz' score is more consistently pleasant, as I tend to think the music in The Wiz doesn't get really good until The Scarecrow's first appearance, but once it gets going, there's just no comparison. The Tin Man's tortured lament over his lack of feeling, begging just to be able to be vulnerable, makes me cry to this day, and I don't care how jaunty "We're Off To See The Wizard" is, "Ease On Down The Road" kicks its ass in the first verse. Also, the music in The Wiz actually informs the characters beyond lighthearted incidental motivation. While the Cowardly Lion in the original gets a redundant number reiterating his goal, The Wiz gives us a moment in "Be A Lion" that reaffirms the group's commitment to each other, establishing that their individual needs for brains, heart, and courage are also what they need as a group to survive their adventure.

And I didn't even get to "Brand New Day" for god sakes. The visual style, while certainly more traditionally pretty in the original, is much more interesting and thought provoking in this film. The imagery is a sort of happy medium between the MGM film and the later sequel Return To Oz in terms of darker and grittier elements, and especially for someone with my twisted sensibilities, it is to The Wiz' advantage. I mention this in light of the song "Brand New Day" because of the indelible image of the Winkies, freed from slavery, shedding their deformed selves to reveal beautiful half naked people rejoicing in their emancipation. Even as a child oblivious to the subtext of this moment, I can't begin to describe how mind blowing this was just as a concept. Add to that living graffiti, anthropomorphized objects, and an urban setting twisted by magic as if torn apart by a tornado leaving cartoon physics in its wake, and freaking cybernetic carnival attractions. I like the talking apple tree as much as the next guy, and the horses of a different color were cute, but come on.

I grant that without The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz would not exist, but that doesn't mean anything when it comes to their relative quality. There would be no Wrath of Khan without Star Trek: The Motion Picture. To go back to my earlier example, there would be no modern man without cavemen first paving the way for our species, but that doesn't mean that the civilization that built cities and skyscrapers isn't vastly superior to a bunch of hairless monkeys who could just barely handle fire. Give all the respect that is due to the antecedent, but don't let the fact that it came before arbitrarily elevate it above an improved re-interpretation. And The Wiz is an improvement, in pretty much every way possible. Deal with it

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