(director: Sidney Lumet; screenwriter: Joel Schumacher/based on the play by William F. Brown and the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: Dede Allen; music: Quincy Jones; cast: Diana Ross (Dorothy), Michael Jackson (The Scarecrow), Nipsy Russell (Tin Man), Ted Ross (Cowardly Lion), Richard Pryor (The Wiz), Mabel King (Evilena, Wicked Witch of the West), Theresa Merritt (Auntie Em), Thelma Carpenter (Miss One), Lena Horne (Glinda the Good); Runtime: 133; MPAA Rating: G; producer: Rob Cohen; MCA Universal Home Video; 1978)

“It Lost Its Magic”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Sidney Lumet (“The Hill”/”Serpico”/”Murder on the Orient Express”)directs this unremarkable glossy all-black version of Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, adapted by writer Joel Schumacher from William F. Brown’s joyous smash hit Broadway musical (with Charlie Smalls‘ original score aided by Quincy Jones). The all-black play premiered in 1975 and ran for over four years. Frank Baum’s story becomes unrecognizable in Lumet’s limp hipster Motown version, replete with disco music, even if its central message–that it’s essential to believe in yourself–remains intact.Lumet switches locations from Kansas to NYC, which now becomes Oz.Diana Ross plays the leading role of Dorothy, a shy 24-year-old Harlem kindergarten teacher, who is devoted to her parents, her dog Toto and her class. Though the music is OK and things are energetic, the overall effect is still lifeless when compared to the spectacular 1939 film version. White dramatist Lumet’s direction is inadequate for this bouncy black musical, as it veers from crass sentimentality to ill-fitting smart-ass lingo. But there are a few rewards offered that include the lavish huge sets by Tony Waltonandthe show-stopper songs of ‘Everybody Rejoice’ and the ‘Emerald City Ballet.’

During a NYC bizzard, Toto is lost in the street and Dorothy leaves her family dinner to search for the dog and in the strong wind is carried off to a wonderland (an urban version of Oz). Accidently killing a Wicked Witch, thereby freeing the Munchkins from being splattered on walls as graffiti, Dorothy’s told bya grateful Miss One (Thelma Carpenter), a good witch in the numbers racket, if she wants to return to Harlem to never take off the witch’s shoes and follow the yellow brick road to Emerald City. There resides the Wizard of Oz (Richard Pryor) and he’s the only one who will know what to do. Along the way, Dorothy is joined by travel companions such as Scarecrow (Michael Jackson), Tin Man (Nipsy Russell) and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross)–a former statue in front of the main library on 42nd Street.

A fun moment has Glinda the Good Witch (Lena Horne) hanging in the sky in a sequined shower-cap, urging you to ‘Believe in Yourself’.

But it was a bad decision to have that whack finale of a phony wizard and change Dorothy from a wide-eyed little girl of 12 to an adult of 24 played by the 34-year-old Ross. It lost its magic, as Ross’s dreary performance (she’s not a qualified actress) didn’t do the trick as this version sucked the life out its fairytale adventure.