Thursday, June 24, 2010

One Minute Review- The Wiz

There's a musical sequence to Brand New Day in The Wiz (1974) that is so perfect it's a shame the movie isn't better as a whole. It's one of those perfect movie musical moments: the music sores, raising the choreography from ballet to a kind of grace cut off from gravity, cut to the rhythm of the music, happening on a set built from the mind of a visionary. It may be one of the cinema's great musical sequences. And yet it comes late in a film of extreme ups and downs. The Wiz, based on a Broadway musical, inspired by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, was allegedly the most expensive musical of it's time and certainly one of the most expensive productions ever filmed in New York City. The film was directed by Sidney Lumet, a master filmmaker if there ever was one, and there are scenes of such utter genius in which it appears as if Lumet knows exactly what he is doing. And yet, which such money at stake, the inevitable seems to eat up any potential the film had of succeeding as a whole. It's more a collection of pretty set pieces and snazzy location shooting than any sort of complete narrative. From one moment to the next the film is alive, the songs magical, the experience uplifting and yet there is nothing propelling the story forward. We know the tale from the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz film but it's at the service of art directors, set designers, cinematographers and choreographers. There's too many hands to fit in this pot. Maybe one of the film's most central problems was to set the story in 1974 New York City. By having Dorothy and co. run through subways stations, amusement parks and by building Emerald City in a lot behind the Twin Towers the film is its own distraction and lacks the fantasy element of exploring a new world. In a sense, by those standards, the original film was more believable as a complete immersion into fantasy. The Wiz is, by comparison, a slide show with movement. And yet the film has so much of value. Lumet captures the song and dance as well as any director trained in musicals could have, Diana Ross' voice soars as Dorothy and Michael Jackson steals the show; so gentle and tender buried amid his make-up as Scarcrow. I guess that's the danger of letting money make the artistic choices: The Wiz is magical when taken as a collection of moments, but it's not much of anything else.

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