Before I get started, I need to get the following disclaimer out of the way.
I’m a huge Sidney Lumet fan.
When we talk about gritty seventies New York films, “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” are essential parts of the conversation. (“Prince of the City” came out in 1982 but feels like a seventies film down to it’s bones.) “Network” is a superior rendering of Paddy Chayefsky’s prophetic script and an essential part of any conversation we need to have about modern media.
And yes, I just used the word “essential” twice. Trust me, when talking about Lumet, that word comes up a lot.
Yes, he had his lighter moments. “Murder on the Orient Express” remains the best film ever made from an Agatha Christie novel. And his film of Ira Levin’s play “Death Trap” is a underrated gem. But his reputation was primarily as a social realist filmmaker.
Which makes his film version of “The Wiz” that much more of a fascinating misfire.
According to Wikipedia, Lumet wound up pinch hitting for John Badham who dropped out directing after Diana Ross convinced producers to let her play Dorothy. At first glance, Lumet seemed like a perfect fit. He had a reputation for bringing films on time and under budget. Not to mention his clear affinity for New York City.
There were just a couple of problems.
One of them was that Lumet, for all his other gifts as a filmmaker, seemed mostly unable to properly shoot a musical number.
Most of the numbers are shot in long masters that either isolate the actors against giant Tony Walton designed sets or make large scale dance numbers look like surveillance footage of a flashmob. It doesn’t help that the editing (by Dede Allen of all people!) seems to have no rhythmic relationship to the music. It’s a musical made by people who seemed to have only a vague idea about how musicals work.
And when I say “mostly”, there are some exceptions. The opening number “The Feeling That We Once Had” which takes place at a large family gathering has a pleasing naturalism that promises a possible hybrid of musical and Lumet’s social realism that the film doesn’t deliver on. And “Can You Feel a Brand New Days” which is actually a rousing number. Whether this means he either got the hang of shooting musicals by the end or he had some odd justification for shooting the earlier numbers like he did.
The other major problem is that Lumet, bless his pea-picking heart, has no feel for a fantasy setting.
The original “”Wizard of Oz” was just as soundstage bound as “The Wiz’ but Victor Fleming (And the uncredited Co-Directors.) knew how to create a tone that allowed you to suspend your disbelief and believe that Oz was a real place.
Lumet on the other hand, seems to have had no idea how to create that suspension of disbelief. And as a result at the end of the film, we don’t see Glenda the Good Witch surrounded by heavenly cherubs, we see Lena Horne in a blue sparkly dress surrounded by a mess of uncomforable babies in flying rigs.
It doesn’t help that Diana Ross simply does not work as Dorothy. Yeah, she sings the hell out of her songs but acting wise, she comes across as shrill, high strung and borderline hysterical. If you ever wanted to see how an adult Judy Garland would have played Dorothy, this is as close as you’re ever going to get.
So yeah, the film is a failure but it’s a fascinating failure. Because Lumet may have been a fast shooter but he was no hack. This was clearly a filmmaker working at the hight of his powers (Remember, his masterpiece “Prince of the City” was just a couple of years away.) on a piece of material that he just could not crack,
And there are some wonderful things in the film. The design work by frequent Lumet collaborator Tony Walton is quiet lovely to behold. And he gets an able assist from master visual effects designer Albert Whitlock. (His shot of a sun rising over the Emerald City turning into a giant apple is a witty grace note.) And all of the other actors bring their A game to the proceedings including Michael Jackson.
Dear Lord, Michael Jackson.
Before “Thriller”. Before “Motown 25”. And before the rage monster that is worldwide fame beat the living crap out of him with a bejeweled dildo. Michael Jackson was a gangly, sweet faced kid of twenty who took a role made famous by Ray Bolger and turned it into something deeper and more soulful. His Scarecrow was hyper aware of his limitations and yet pushed forward, learning as he went. Determined to do his best for his new found friends. His performance is the quiet counterpoint that makes Ross’ Dorothy tolerable.
(Sidebar: He should have done more movies. After “Thriller”, he chose to focus on controlling his own projects to such a point that he created a bubble that he never really broke out of. I could see an alternate timeline where he gave up some control and let himself be part of other filmmakers visions. Hell, I’m sure Lumet would have loved to have used him in other projects. Hell, there’s probably three or four roles in “Q&A” that Jackson would have crushed in. Instead he chose to be just “Michael Jackson” and it smashed him against a wall. Abed was wrong, this is the darkest timeline.)
The rest of the cast is on point. Ted Ross and Nipsey Russell bring in a dash of Old School vaudeville to The Lion and the Tim Man. Mabel King is a force of nature as Evillene, The Wicked Witch of the West. (Even if Lumet screws up her big number by shooting it with a telephoto lens, making her face a blur.) And yes, even if the visual representation of Glinda does not work, Lena Horne is still Lena fucking Horne!
Yes, “The Wiz” does not work. But it’s still fascinating to watch because even when a gifted filmmaker crashes and burns, there is still some beauty to be found in the wreckage.
For that reason, “The Wiz” is the Netflix pick of the week.
In the comments: What’s your favorite film by a film maker you love that you have to admit does not work