L. Frank Baum's classic The Wizard of Oz has charmed millions since its publication in 1900. A 1939 film version of the story starring Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, Ray Bolger, and others is a screen classic. Since 1975, The Wiz, an all black musical based on the tale, has been wowing theatre audiences on Broadway. Sidney Lumet's screen adaptation is meant to send the whole country boppin' down the yellow Brick Road.
Diana Ross stars as Dorothy, a timid schoolteacher who lives with her folks in Harlem and has never even ventured to downtown Manhattan. She and her dog Toto are whirled away in a snowstorm to the Land of Oz. There she meets three others who also feel they're missing something: Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) who longs for a brain, Tinman (Nipsey Russell) who yearns for a heart, and the Lion (Ted Ross) who wants to be courageous. They think they can get what they need from the Wiz (Richard Pryor), the overlord of the Land of Oz. And so they make the journey to the Emerald City. Triumphing over the Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King), they find within themselves the very qualities they foolishly sought from the Wiz who, ironically, is a weakling himself.
The rock-soul-gospel music of this expensive screen version of The Wiz is brought home to the ears with appropriate élan. But the eyes are given an even larger treat. Tony Walton's design and costumes are spectacular. Aided by Albert Whitlock's special visual effects, he's created a phantasmagorical milieu out of New York's World Trade Center's plazas. Equally impressive are Louis Johnson's vibrant dance numbers; they match the music's soulful exuberance.
Although The Wiz is not a screen classic, it certainly stands above Grease and Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And despite all the emphasis on production values, its celebration of personhood comes through loud and clear.