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Blu-ray Review: The Wiz

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The Film

Journeyman director Sidney Lumet has proved himself to be a master of many different kinds of films over his illustrious career — the courtroom drama (12 Angry Men, The Verdict), the cop film (Serpico, Prince of the City), the sprawling media critique (Network, Dog Day Afternoon) and the melodrama (The Fugitive Kind, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead), among others. But anyone as prolific as Lumet (more than 40 films in 50 years) is going to helm some projects that they aren’t as suited for, and Lumet’s foray into the world of the musical — The Wiz — was not a good fit.

Adapted from the successful Broadway musical, The Wiz retells L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz through the prism of Motown music and African-American culture. But even with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell and Ted Ross lending their considerable talents, the film falls on its face over and over again, hamstrung by a tedious and glacial screenplay by Joel Schumacher and Lumet’s odd framing choices.

The film transports the action of the novel to New York City, where Dorothy (Diana Ross) enters an alternate world when she chases her dog, Toto, out into a snowstorm. There she meets a scarecrow without a brain (Jackson), a carnival tin man without a heart (Russell) and a lion without courage (Ted Ross, who alsp played the part on Broadway). Together, they travel the yellow brick road to see The Wiz (an underused Richard Pryor), but the film sure takes its time getting them there. At two hours and 15 minutes, the film feels like its stretching on often, and packing in musical numbers where there needn’t be. (The original film runs a brisk 101 minutes in comparison.)

The numbers by Charlie Smalls and adapted here by Quincy Jones are mostly solid, and the performers have no trouble bringing them into a film context, but Lumet doesn’t seem to know how to shoot them, with his camera often languishing in wide shots for what seems like an eternity. Rather than capture the vivacity of his cast, he drains the energy out of the numbers by keeping his distance.

While the film’s production design does yield several memorable set pieces (a subway station that comes alive and tries to consume the heroes is particularly well-executed), this is a far duller affair than it ought to be.

The Blu-ray Disc

The Wiz is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. This is an admirable transfer that feels fresh and vibrant throughout, with excellent image clarity and stability. The makeup effects are given greater depth without looking too artificial and colors really pop, especially the frequent yellows seen in taxicabs and the yellow brick road. Occasionally, the image looks a little soft, but given the age of the source material and the likelihood that little effort was put into any restoration, this is a solid transfer.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is even better, giving Smalls’ numbers a chance to really shine, with excellent vocal and musical depth and separation. Dialogue is clear, if a little quiet occasionally, but overall, the film sounds great.

Special Features

Not that I was too eager to dig into anything extra after watching the film drag on, but here’s a truly pitiful selection of extras. Only the theatrical trailer and a brief 12-minute making-of vintage featurette are included, and both have long been available on previous DVD versions.

The Bottom Line

The Wiz is a misfire on a lot of levels, and even this nice-looking presentation doesn’t make me want to think about revisiting it.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
  • Mr. Wiz

    To The Other Chad: Actually It makes perfect sense to see a tornado in the middle of a snowstorm. If you actually did your research to see if this were possible then you would have found this to be very possible. Its called a SNOW VORTEX which often occur in very high winds during a snowstorm. They often swirl like a small tornado during blizzard like conditions. You can Youtube Snow Vortex to see for yourself.

    THE WIZ! WOW! What a fantastic film with an awsome message! Most of the meaning of the film are found in the lyrics of each song. THE WIZ is a very beautiful and marvelous film, and Diana Ross was wonderful as Dorothy.

  • Good point. I see what you mean, makes sense.

  • Dusty Somers

    I suppose “journeyman” comes off as an insult, although I certainly didn’t mean it that way. I think Lumet is a fantastic director; it’s just that he traverses between genres and styles without a truly distinctive stamp. He’s no auteur, but he doesn’t want to be.

  • It’s sad to realize only Diana Ross is still with us out of the primary cast…

    I agree this isn’t a very good movie. Diana Ross as a thirtysomething Dorothy is a stretch. Also a tornado in the middle of a snowstorm makes no sense.

    I love Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man, with his “Slide Some Oil To Me” being standout number.

    But don’t you think “journeyman” is maybe a bit harsh for a five time Oscar nominee?