washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Movies > Features

Michael Jackson On Film: No Fizz After 'The Wiz'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page N01

Neverland Valley Ranch is a two- to three-hour drive from Hollywood, but when it comes to Michael Jackson and a movie career, the distance may as well be a zillion light-years.

The 46-year-old Jackson, who begins his long journey as a trial defendant tomorrow in a Santa Maria, Calif., courtroom, has meant much to the music industry, and yet, at the same time, he has meant almost nothing to the film industry. For much of the 1980s and part of the '90s, there were many rumors of one big Jackson movie deal or another that never came to pass -- he was to play Peter Pan; he was in talks with Spielberg on some sci-fi horror picture; there was news of a buddy picture caper with Macaulay Culkin. But looking back, his IMDb.com résumé is remarkably short, an abandoned department of his stardom: He has done a voice-over here, a cameo as himself in "Men in Black II" there. His legacy to film will likely be his penchant for epic-length, high-budget music videos ("Thriller," "Bad") that merely pretended to be movies, and a Disneyland attraction ("Captain Eo") that similarly affirmed the idea that the King of Pop was too big for conventional moviemaking -- he also had to be his own amusement ride.

Jackson as the Scarecrow: A glimpse of the star at a less complicated time in his life. (Universal Pictures/photofest)

Just before megastardom, however, came Jackson's one legitimate co-star billing, as the Scarecrow in "The Wiz," Universal's big-budget 1978 adaptation of the all-black Broadway musical, a retelling of L. Frank Baum's turn-of-the-century children's novel, "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," as seen through a prism of inner-city, '70s sensibilities.

The stage version of "The Wiz," which won several Tony Awards in 1975, is an ingenious riff, demonstrating the malleability and flux of the basic "Oz" motif -- a story almost anyone can adapt to his own sense of loss, childhood, insecurity and belonging. (Why else would gay men have anointed themselves as metaphorical "friends of Dorothy" all these years? It ain't just Judy Garland or the slippers; it's a fable of identity crisis, of marginalization: Where is home? How do I find my true self? Where do I have to go to become something other than what I am?)

Brought to the screen by a white producer (Rob Cohen) and a white director (Sidney Lumet, then fresh off the successes of "Serpico" and "Network"), "The Wiz" nevertheless has the urgent, earnest aura of a massive, pop-cultural coda to the black civil rights movement. It feels like the final celebratory hurrah of Hollywood's late-coming role in a "Sesame Street" style of affirmative action, and it moves to the last few beats of funky R&B before Spike Lee and the hip-hop revolution reinvented black cinema.

"The Wiz" dismantles one of the world's whitest movies (1939's "The Wizard of Oz") and puts it back together again, and those who were called to duty showed up and served its cause: Quincy Jones arranged and added to Charlie Smalls's original score; he also brought in singing duo Ashford & Simpson and Luther Vandross to add more material. Some impressive names from theater and the jazz age pop up in small roles and big ones, including baritone Ted Ross as a fur-leisure-suited Fleetwood Coupe de Ville (aka the Cowardly Lion) and Mabel King as Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West. Richard Pryor played the Wiz strictly as Richard Pryor. Nipsy Russell played a vaudevillian Tin Man, and the great Lena Horne clocked in as Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, in a sparklingly overdone, drag-a-riffic penultimate number ("Believe in Yourself") that is still revered on show-tunes night at certain gay bars. (That Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Sammy Davis Jr., Alvin Ailey, Ben Vereen and Stevie Wonder were not involved in "The Wiz" must surely have been a matter of conflicting schedules.)

Diana Ross insisted on playing Dorothy, and the screenplay was rewritten to make her a 24-year-old kindergarten teacher from Harlem instead of a 14-year-old girl from Kansas. (Ross was 33 at the time, and critics, including Pauline Kael, called her out for having the audacity to pass herself off as a girlish naif.)

"You've never been south of 125th Street," scolds Auntie Em, urging her niece to get a life, after Dorothy shyly endures a large family gathering. Instead of a life, Dorothy gets lost in a blizzard that night, chasing her escaped dog Toto. She is hurled into a fantasy Big Apple pastiche that becomes the exotic land of Oz, and quite cleverly so: Like the film adaptation of "Godspell" (1973), New York has been eerily vacated, becoming a kind of lead character all its own. The public library, the 34th Street subway station, Shea Stadium and Coney Island are all stops along the way to the Emerald City in Lower Manhattan, and it turns out "The Wiz" is worth renting (it was released on DVD in 2003) if for no other reason than to get a wistfully good, long (and disco-glamorous) look at the now-gone World Trade Center plaza.

A bag lady, Miss One, the Good Witch of the North, points Dorothy toward the yellow brick road (yellow cabs keep tauntingly clicking off-duty signs whenever Dorothy approaches). In a junkyard cornfield she meets her most important new friend: Michael Jackson's Scarecrow. Ross is credited with urging Motown to sign Jackson and his brothers to a recording contract in 1969, and the two became special friends, which is conveyed the moment they discover a trail of yellow bricks and begin to sing "Ease on Down the Road" -- the movie's most popular number, aside from Evillene's hallmark "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News." Whatever hero worship Jackson presently lavishes on Elizabeth Taylor he at one time apparently reserved only for Ross.

Jackson, who was then all of 19 and a veteran performer, energetically hints at the kind of androgynous persona to come; here, he is in a post-Jackson 5, slightly pre-"Off the Wall" head space. "The Wiz" is our first good look at this post-adolescent Jackson, and already he seems trapped in the state of man-child -- the feminine lilt to his voice, the bashful looks of preternaturally syrupy innocence, the astonishing flexibility of his moves. He makes you believe he is stuffed with newspaper, as his Scarecrow is supposed to be; once in a while, he reaches into his gut and pulls out a scrap of something profound and Jermaine, er, germane -- quotes from Cicero or Confucius, or the weather report.

Beneath his costume and makeup (a smooshed popcorn-tub hat, a pre-scalpel nose made from a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup liner) lurks a face that would ultimately be temporary -- Jackson as a young black man.

With much fanfare, "The Wiz" was released in time for the holidays and promptly fell flat in ticket sales and with critics. Looking back, though, is a rather appreciable delight, even when it's a mess, and especially if you prefer your '70s nostalgia unnarrated by the retro-ironic voices of VH1, et al. For all the money spent to make it, the movie is weirdly awash in amateur gaffes in the effects department, and Lumet's camera spends a lot of time hanging way, way back from the performers, as if commanded by union labor to show off the set construction. The singing, meanwhile -- especially Ross's -- is a marvel.

Had "The Wiz" come along in 1984, Michael Jackson would have been interested but ultimately unable to join the project because of what a stellar sensation he'd become to the world. (Unless, and I'm being very serious here, the Dorothy character could have been rewritten for him.) Jackson's problem, as a potential actor, is that there are very few movies like "The Wiz" to accommodate him -- not only a dearth of G-rated musicals but projects that could conceivably stay within certain parameters of his beloved "magic" and "wonder" and childhood warmth. "The Wiz," as Baum always intended Oz to be, has morose and spooky twists and turns; Jackson eases on down through these with a sort of blissful denial. What translates, still, is his weird joy, even while being chased by a motorcycle gang of monkeys.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company