THE RECORD THE WIZ - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (MCA 2-14000)
Saying "The Wiz" cost a lost of money is like saying that Saudi Arabia has some oil wells. The film, currently filling area theaters, is said to have cost anywhere from $14 million to $35 million and is being energetically promoted as "the most expensive film musical ever made."
With a musical comes music - in this case, a two-record original motion-picture soundtrack that may not have cost $35 million, but at $14.98 list is right up there with the most expensive double albums ever sold. Price tags in the ranges quoted for both film and album naturally pose the question: "Is it worth it?" the answer is yes - if you can get it on sale.
Recent movie musicals have come in three basic types. The first is the non-movie movie musical, a genre that uses songs as the total narrative. The cartegory includes such films as "Tommy," "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Godspell" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." All were based on albums that were already famous, and all produced accompanying soundtracks that were weaker than their original sources.
The second category is the non-musical movie musical - pictures like "Lady Sings the Blues," "Cabaret" and "Saturday Night Fever," which incorporate their musical momments directly into the storyline, dramatically improving the quality of both movie and album. The problem, though, is that the soundtracks - individual song appeal notwithstanding - give no sense of the film. The "Saturday Night Fever" album, played in its entirely, is great disco music but tells us nothing about Tony Manero.
The final group is the old-fashioned movie musical, the kind in which Fred Astaire gets up from his desk to dance with a coat rack to the music of an unseen orchestra. In these films, reality is compromised, but since the musical numbers are used to amplify the plot, the resulting albums provide a thread of continuity.
The latest of his breed are "Grease" and "The Wiz." The albums benefit because they contain songs effectively composed to create specific moods, and - taken a whole - they tell a story. "The Wiz" tells its story fairly well.
MCA Records had to shell out more than a pair of ruby slippers to get Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Lena Horne within one record sleeve - and that trio is only the tip of the yellow brick road.
Besides a featured supporting crew of some vibrant but not-so-well-known singers (Thelma Carpenter, Theresa Meritt, Ted Ross, etc.) and some very well-known comedians who manage to sing (Richard Pryor, Nipsey Russell), "The Wiz" album contains an encyclopedia's worth of top musicians. Among the Cecil B. DeMille-like cast are Roberta Flack, Ron Carter, the Brecker Brothers, Hubert Laws, Jon Faddis, Bob James, Richard Tee, Grady Tate, Eric Gale, Ralph MacDonald, and Toots Thielemans, all under the sometimes overbearing supervision of Quincy Jones.
What's even more impressive than the aggregation of players is the way the album combines music and narrative. You don't have to see the movie to get the gist of what's happening in the soundtrack. There are few moments weak enough to blunt you interest and several that are strong enough to let the record stand alone.
Diana Ross turns her wispy voice to advantage on all of her solos. You have to go back to "Touch Me In The Morning" and the theme from "Mahogany" to find the tender vulnerability expressed here in "Can I Go On" and "Is This What the Feeling Gets?" Those ballads were penned by Quincy Jones and the pop soul team of Ashford and Simpson, but it's Charlie Smalls' work that bring out Ross' best.
Smalls wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway production and his "Soon As I Get Home" - with its harmonica accompaniment brilliantly performed by Toots Thielemans - and "Be a Lion" are the album's highlights. Besides the ballads, there is the now-families Ross-and-Jackson duet "Ease on Down the Road," and some Cab Calloway-like vocalizing by Nipsey Russell on "Slide Some Oil to Me."
Despite the opportunities for filler, there's little wasted time on "The Wiz." Some of the medleys have a week link or two, and the production smothers some of the album's verve; but the overall effect is positive if you like show scores. Only Anthony Jackson's bass solo, "Poppy Girls" - which is a note-for-note copy of the O'Jays "Money" - seems like a placebo for the boogey crowd.
"The Wiz" album is not rock'n'roll. Nor is it disco. "The Wiz" is a musical, full-blown and expansive with all the emotional touchstones that any musical - show or movie - is capable of reaching. Despite Quincy Jones' tendency toward overkill, the record laughs and cries, jumps and crawls, shouts and whispers, and rarely forgets its purpose: to tell a story musically.
The original "Wizard of Oz" was a fair tale, and its many incarnations have twisted and stretched its boundries. This sound-track comes from a movie that's set in today's New York City, and who knows where the idea will go next. Berkley is publishing a book based on the film based on the story that Baum wrote. No matter. Joy easily translates to various presentations. On the two records that make up."The Wiz," the magical essence of Oz remains intact.