The Wiz

USA, 1978, 133 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet

The Wiz began life in 1974, as a Broadway musical with an all-black cast. It became the smash hit of the season, winning Tony Awards in seven categories: Best Musical, Best Score (Charlie Smalls), Best Director, Best Choreography, Best Costumes, Best Supporting Actor (Ted Ross as the Lion, the part he recreates in the film) and Best Supporting Actress.

After such success, it was inevitable that film studios would want to bring The Wiz to a wider audience. Universal quickly acquired the rights, persuaded Diana Ross to be in it, and engaged Sidney Lumet to direct. Lumet decided that for the film version, a lot of changes would be made; ‘But,’ he said, ‘we will be true to three things – the original book by Frank L. Baum, The Wiz score by Charlie Smalls, and the talents of Diana Ross.’

Before detailed planning began on the film of The Wiz, Lumet read The Wonderful Wizard of Oz again and got the idea of turning it into an urban fantasy from Frank L. Baum himself. Lumet said in an interview, ‘The original book is really about self-knowledge. The Lion is incredibly brave; the Scarecrow is the brains of the group; the Tinman steps on an ant and starts to cry – and yet he thinks he hasn’t got a heart! All these people are searching for a magic formula that would give them something they already have. Now, as soon as you realise that that is the essence of the book, the rest becomes simple. It doesn’t really matter how old Dorothy is and it doesn’t have to be on a farm – it could happen anywhere.’

Twelve songs in the film come from the stage version; another four were written especially for the film. Some of the original songs were arranged differently in the film because Lumet and Quincy Jones wanted to try to recreate as many specific periods of black music and dance as possible. Every musical arrangement and every dance is based on one particular black style. For example, the four-four tempo of the Tinman’s song ‘What Would I Do If I Could Feel?’ recalls the music of a funeral dirge. His next song, ‘Slide Some Oil to Me’ uses the syncopated beat of Dixieland music. Elsewhere in the score, the arrangements are influenced by Tamla Motown, gospel and soul, among other styles.

The dance sequences in The Wiz use more dancers than had ever been seen on the screen before. There are never less than 80 and in the Emerald City sequence, the total went up to 400, each of whom had to wear three different costumes. This sort of scene helped to make The Wiz one of the most expensive musicals ever made. (The 25 miles of lino needed for the Yellow Brick Road also cost quite a lot!)

Diana Ross was the big star on whom the whole production deal depended. If she had not agreed to play the part of Dorothy, then the film would probably never have been made. She had become so well-known during the previous ten years, as a singer with The Supremes and as an actress in such films as Lady Sings the Blues (1972), that even bankers had heard of her. As a result the necessary $30m became available.

The part of Dorothy was re-written to suit Ross. She was actually 34 when the film was shot, but it was agreed that she could pass for 24, so that’s Dorothy’s age in the film. Furthermore, three new songs were written for her – ‘Can I Go On?, ‘Is This What Feeling Gets?’ and ‘A Brand New Day Everybody Rejoice’.
Terry Staples

‘The Wiz’: a contemporary review

As so often nowadays, a rather nice little musical seems to be peeping out from behind the fulsome distractions of this expanded version of a Broadway success. In updating Frank Baum’s novel from Kansas in 1900 to a contemporary all-black New York, William Brown’s book turned the original’s homely moral into a pleasantly hip cautionary tale about the dangers of urban living. The episode in the poppy fields, for instance, is logically transformed into a neon-lit infernal alley where ladies of the night busily push cocaine; while (in one of the best scenes in the film) the Forest of Fighting Trees becomes the New York subway, alive with snapping trash bins, clashing gates and electrical cables which extend deadly, probing tentacles.

Making clever use of Tony Walton’s superb sets, which lightly fantasise New York landmarks like the Public Library, the Chrysler Building, the World Trade Center Plaza or the Lincoln Center fountain, Lumet gets the film off to a good start by mingling two and three dimensional perspectives, so that his metropolis alternates between being alarmingly real and magically whimsical. Starting on a very tangible highway, for instance, the yellow brick road becomes a painted set reminiscent of the one in the Judy Garland version, dovetails on to what appears to be a real footbridge, and finally emerges facing a cyclorama Manhattan skyline. All this side of the film is impeccable, with a nice line in New Yorker jokes (the Big Apple naturally has an apple-shaped sun, and its yellow cabs disobligingly vanish whenever hailed) and a generous quota of striking moments: the truly sinister first appearance of the Munchkins, as graffiti on a dingy wall gradually begin to detach themselves; the quaint little patch of sunflowers, evidently somebody’s allotment amid the ruins of a derelict site, where the Scarecrow is forced to entertain four crows by singing their derisory anthem, ‘You Can’t Win’; the death of Evillene, flushed down her toilet-shaped throne as the water-sprinklers begin to work.

The trouble is that the film also has delusions of grandeur, and where Charlie Smalls’ pleasant original songs are kept pleasantly brief, Quincy Jones seems to have expanded all the ensemble numbers to inordinate length. Chief offenders are the ‘Emerald City Ballet’, which echoes the ‘Think Pink’ number from Funny Face through no less than three separate colour schemes; and the dances celebrating the deaths of the two wicked witches, conventionally choreographed with movements more or less indistinguishable from each other or from the ‘Emerald City Ballet’. The result is that The Wiz is very much a thing of fits and starts, further undermined by the curious casting of Diana Ross as Dorothy. Acknowledging that she is a good few years too old to fit the fantasy, the script makes some attempt to explain this away by presenting her as constitutionally afraid to go out and meet life; all the sillier, therefore, that the only effect her adventure has on her should be to make her want to dash home again. Engaging performances by Michael Jackson, Ted Ross and Nipsey Russell, though, and Tony Walton’s designs alone are worth the price of admission.
Tom Milne, Monthly Film Bulletin, March 1979

Director: Sidney Lumet
Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Motown Productions
Executive Producer: Ken Harper
Producer: Rob Cohen
Associate Producer: Burtt Harris
Production Manager: Kenneth Utt
Assistant Director: Burtt Harris
2nd Assistant Director: Alan Hopkins
Script Supervisor: Lynn T. Ward
Screenplay: Joel Schumacher
Based on the play by (Book): William F. Brown
Based on the play by (Music/Lyrics): Charlie Smalls
From the book by: L. Frank Baum
Produced on the New York stage by: Ken Harper
Director of Photography: Oswald Morris
2nd Unit Photographer: Jack Priestley
Camera Operator: Jim Contner
Assistant Camera: Hank Muller
Special Visual Effects: Albert Whitlock
Matte Photographers: Bill Taylor, Dennis Glouner
Special Effects: Al Griswold
Editor: Dede Allen
Assistant Editors: Angelo Corrao, Marlayna Franklin
Production Designer: Tony Walton
Art Director: Philip Rosenberg
Assistant Art Director: John Jay Moore
Set Decorators: Edward Stewart, Robert Drumheller
Chief Scenic Artist: Eugene Powell, Ed Garzero
Fantasy Props: Eion Sprott, Richard Tautkus
Prop Master: Connie Brink
Assistant Costume Design: Dona Granata
Costume Co-ordinator: Anna Hill Johnstone, Gloria Gresham
Costumes: Tony Walton
Make-up Supervisor: Robert Laden
Special Make-up Design: Stan Winston
Hairstylist: William Farley, Ted Long
Music: Charlie Smalls
Music Adaptation/Supervisor: Quincy Jones
Orchestra Conductor: Robert N. Tucker Jr.
Orchestrations: Quincy Jones, Pete Myers, Mendel Balitz, Bob Freedman, Ralph Ferraro, Greig McRitchie, Bob Florence, Chris Boardman, Dick Hazard, Wayne Robinson
Choir Arranged/Conductor: Tom Bähler
Dance Arrangements: Quincy Jones, Frank Owens
Vocal Arrangements: Quincy Jones
Music Adapted and Supervised by: Quincy Jones
Supervising Music Editor: Jack Fitzstephens
Choreography: Louis Johnson
Sound Mixer: James T. Sabat
Special Sound Consultant: Guy Costa
Re-recording Supervisor: Dick Vorisek
Supervising Sound Editor: Jack Fitzstephens
Stunt Co-ordinator: Everett Creach
Toto Owned/Trained by: Dawn Animal Agency
Yellow Brick Road Created by: Congoleum
Studio: Astoria Film Studios

Diana Ross (Dorothy)
Michael Jackson (Scarecrow)
Nipsey Russell (Tinman)
Ted Ross (Lion)
Mabel King (Evillene)
Theresa Merritt (Aunt Em)
Thelma Carpenter (Miss One)
Lena Horne (Glinda the Good)
Richard Pryor (The Wiz)
Stanley Greene (Uncle Henry)
Clyde J. Barrett (subway peddler)
Derrick Bell, Roderick Spencer Sibert, Kashka Banjoko, Ronald ‘Smokey’ Stevens (crows)
Tony Brealond, Joe Lynn (gold footmen)
Clinton Jackson, Charles Rodriguez (green footmen)
Carlton Johnson (head Winkie)
Ted Williams (1st munchkin)
Mabel Robinson (2nd munchkin)
Damon Pearce (3rd munchkin)
Donna Patrice Ingram (4th munchkin)
Harry Madsen (Cheetah)
Glory Van Scott (Rolls-Royce lady)
Vicki Baltimore (green lady)

USA 1978
133 mins

Amazing Grace
Mon 17 May 18:10; Sat 29 May 15:15; Tue 8 Jun 18:10
Whitney: Can I Be Me
Tue 18 May 20:50; Sat 26 Jun 18:10
Siren of the Tropics (La sirène des tropiques)
Wed 19 May 18:10; Sat 5 Jun 12:20
Stormy Weather
Wed 19 May 20:40; Sat 5 Jun 16:00
Sat 22 May 17:50; Wed 23 Jun 20:30
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things
Mon 24 May 18:10; Sat 19 Jun 15:20
…But Then, She’s Betty Carter
Sat 29 May 12:10; Mon 7 Jun 18:00
Sun 30 May 18:40; Thu 10 Jun 20:35
Mon 31 May 16:10; Thu 17 Jun 20:40
Wed 2 Jun 18:00; Tue 15 Jun 20:40
What’s Love Got to Do with It
Fri 4 Jun 18:00; Sat 26 Jun 20:45
Twenty Feet from Stardom
Fri 4 Jun 20:45; Thu 10 Jun 18:20
The Wiz
Sun 6 Jun 12:20; Fri 18 Jun 17:45

Promotional Partner
Caramel Film Club

Celebrating films starring and directed by Black talent and more

Welcome to the home of great film and TV, with three cinemas and a studio, a world-class library, regular exhibitions and a pioneering Mediatheque with 1000s of free titles for you to explore. Browse special-edition merchandise in the BFI Shop.We're also pleased to offer you a unique new space, the BFI Riverfront – with unrivalled riverside views of Waterloo Bridge and beyond, a delicious seasonal menu, plus a stylish balcony bar for cocktails or special events. Come and enjoy a pre-cinema dinner or a drink on the balcony as the sun goes down.

Enjoy a great package of film benefits including priority booking at BFI Southbank and BFI Festivals. Join today at bfi.org.uk/join

We are always open online on BFI Player where you can watch the best new, cult & classic cinema on demand. Showcasing hand-picked landmark British and independent titles, films are available to watch in three distinct ways: Subscription, Rentals & Free to view.

See something different today on player.bfi.org.uk

Join the BFI mailing list for regular programme updates. Not yet registered? Create a new account at www.bfi.org.uk/signup

Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
Questions/comments? Contact the Programme Notes team by email