The Wiz is the most unusual departure in the directorial career of staunch realist Sidney Lumet, an ambitious, colorful, and rousing musical allegory of the social ills and triumphs of black America, structured on The Wizard of Oz. The film bombed during its initial release, failing to galvanize the audience that turned the same material into a Broadway hit, but has gained appreciation as kitsch in the intervening years. Its technical achievements were recognized through Oscar nominations for art direction, costumes, cinematography, and score, but critics were divided on whether the film glorified its all-black cast or stereotyped it thoughtlessly. The dark urban landscape is indeed populated by thinly veiled drug addicts, gang members, and huckster politicians, but Lumet and screenwriter Joel Schumacher assert that these are undeniable aspects of a harsh world, and can be overcome through courage, love, and understanding. Charlie Smalls' R&B songs, particularly the catchy "Ease on Down the Road," are what really resonate, working so naturally as alternatives to the familiar ditties from the Judy Garland version. The cast, notably Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, lend them perfect voice. Still, it's difficult to overlook the film's faults, which include the criminal misuse of Richard Pryor as the mirthless wizard, a handful of images that are too dour for a G movie, and the overlong 133-minute running time. The Wiz is a valiant effort to blend grand-scale popular entertainment and pointed social commentary, but it's too much like a bizarre poppy hallucination to achieve widespread affection.
by Derek Armstrong review