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.