The Wiz: What The Hell Happened To Michael Jackson?

The Wiz (1978). 134 minutes, Universal Pictures. Directed by Sidney Lumet.

The Wiz came out in the fall of 1978. I was a junior in high school at the time, and most of my spare time was spent practicing and competing on the school’s debate team. That year I also got my driver’s license, and so it was the first year I was able to drive myself to various places. And, more importantly, to drive to places with my friends. There was no movie theater in the small town of Hodgenville where I went to high school; we had to drive 10 miles away to Elizabethtown to get to the nearest theater. And I hope I don’t have to remind you that this was before the era of home video…

My debate team partner Mark Shelton didn’t have access to a car (nor did he even get his driver’s license until after graduation!), so if he wanted to see a movie, he had to persuade me or another of our friends to go see it. Such was the case with The Wiz. I had no interest in seeing it; I was not a fan of Michael Jackson, and I had never heard of Diana Ross, Nipsey Russell, or anyone else who was in the cast. I did know who Richard Pryor was, but I knew him only as a raunchy comedian, and didn’t see what good he would be in some cheesy musical.

But Mark had seen a stage production of The Wiz two years previously on a trip to New York, and he was desperate to see the movie. I was easy to convince, since even then everyone knew I loved movies and would go to see almost anything. And in truth, I did (and do) like musicals – I just wasn’t familiar with The Wiz.

So, one Friday evening in November of 1978, I drove over to Elizabethtown with a couple of friends, and we saw The Wiz. I was not very impressed with the movie as a whole. It seemed too long, but in an odd way: The good parts were too short, and the bad parts were too long. The tone of the film was somehow all wrong, although it was not easy to say exactly how. My friends and I were especially dismissive of Diana Ross as Dorothy. As I recall, we made fun of her portrayal in the car on the way home, and for at least a few days the following week.

There was one thing in the movie that I was very impressed with, however. And so were all of my friends. That was Michael Jackson, 19 years old at the time, as The Scarecrow. He was the only really outstanding thing in the movie. I was astonished at how good of an actor he was. I knew Michael Jackson only as the singer from The Jackson 5, as a guest on The Sonny and Cher Show, and as a cartoon character on Saturday mornings. I had no idea he had that in him.

We all agreed. Mark, who was very disappointed in the movie version, did say that Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow was the only thing in the entire movie that was better than the stage version. I remember thinking, well, Michael Jackson is obviously going to become a famous actor.

The following year, Jackson’s first solo album Off The Wall came out, but I was not much of a music fan at the time, and wasn’t interested. In fact, I never even heard the album until I was in college. I was, instead, waiting for an announcement of what his next movie role would be.

But there never was another movie. The Wiz ended up being Michael Jackson’s one and only film.

As the years went by, and I saw Michael Jackson in various music videos, I’d see occasional glimpses of that fine acting talent. But it was always apparent that I’d seen him at his best back in 1978. Of course, the 1970’s were the last decade that you could hear or see Michael Jackson and just enjoy him solely as a performer. After that, his strange personal life became what everyone thought of when they heard the name.

When Michael Jackson died last week, and all the cries of “Wacko Jacko” turned into “Michael Jackson the Legendary Musician”, I was reminded again of The Wiz. And so, Saturday night, I downloaded the HD version of The Wiz over iTunes and watched it on the Apple TV. I wanted to see that Michael Jackson again, and see if my impressions from 1978 would match my impressions in 2009.

The Wiz is a retelling of Frank Baum‘s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Although it’s a musical, it does not share anything with the famous 1939 movie version of the same book. The Wiz is an African-American (we said “black” back in the 70’s when this was made, though) twist on the same story. Instead of a farm girl in Kansas, Dorothy is a black girl in New York’s Harlem neighborhood. Instead of a twister, a blizzard takes her away to Oz. And the magical land of Oz is like a magic version of New York, rather than some fairy tale forest.

Seeing it again as an adult, with four years of film school and a lifetime of experience under my belt, it’s much clearer to me how and where The Wiz succeeds – and even more clear how it fails. The production values are good. It’s wonderful to see the World Trade Center intact, as the center of the Emerald City. The sets are marvelous, the costumes are elegant and spectacular. At least every other song is good and tuneful. In the spots where the movie is good, it’s very good.

Ah… but the rest. It’s even worse than I remembered. I now see what the wrongness of tone was that I could only feel back in 1978. There is no magic here. The sets, while beautiful, are grim. This Oz is no fairy-tale land that you would want to stay in – it’s a creep hell hole that you would see only in your nightmares. Almost every shot makes the wrong choice, like long wide shots when someone is singing. The film seems edited wrong. Some scenes go on way too long, others seem cut short. The film actually has several jump cuts, and they don’t look intentional. As a movie, it has no flow at all. Literally every single creative decision made during filming and editing appears to be the wrong one.

Diana Ross is terrible, absolutely terrible, as Dorothy. It’s not just that, at 34 years old, she is way, way too old to be playing Dorothy. The movie tries to gloss over that by explaining that she’s a 24 year old kindergarden teacher (sadly, Ross looks older than her age here, not younger). To me, the whole point of the story is that Dorothy is a child. An adult just wouldn’t accept Oz in the same way. Her Dorothy has no spunk, no fire. Honestly, the kid in the local elementary school did a better job with Dorothy than Diana Ross did. She is just wrong, so wrong, and that wrongness pulls the whole movie down with it. You know the story. And if you don’t accept Dorothy, you just can’t accept the story.

Michael Jackson, however, is even better than I remembered. The 10 minutes of the film where he first appears, singing “You Can’t Win” and then “Ease on Down the Road“, are fantastic. Watching him again, I am convinced that Jackson made a big mistake when he elected not to do any more film roles. He is magic here. He is the Scarecrow. His movements, his expressions, everything, are absolutely perfect. And of course, he sings the song wonderfully. But more than just his great singing, it’s his facial expression, his hand movements, that sell the songs. It is an absolutely wonderful acting job, hands down one of the best.

One other observation I have after seeing this movie again. In this film, Michael Jackson’s speaking voice sounds… normal. I mean, sure, it’s that same high voice we all know. But the way he speaks, that sounds normal. Not that odd, somewhat feminine lilt that you always heard him speak in throughout his public life. But you know who does talk like that in the movie? Diana Ross.

It’s well known that Michael Jackson was enamored of Diana Ross. After seeing The Wiz again, I’m convinced that Jackson’s odd way of talking was either his conscious or subconscious imitation of his idol Diana Ross. I think he must’ve been studying her during the entire time they were doing the movie, and then he started talking like that. That’s my observation, anyway. Take it as you will.

I don’t pretend to have any idea what the hell happened to Michael Jackson. What happened to that earnest, hard-working 19-year-old actor in The Wiz? Where did he go? What drove him to make the decisions that he did? I certainly don’t know. I doubt if even Jackson himself knew.

But I do know this: If you want to see Michael Jackson before he became “Wacko Jacko”… if you want to see how he could have become one of the great actors of our generation… if you want to see the best performance of Scarecrow ever (and yeah, I do mean better than you-know-who in the 1939 version), then see Michael Jackson in The Wiz.

Fast-forward through the rest of the movie, however.

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