Cinema: Nowhere Over the Rainbow

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Directed by Sidney Lumet; Musical Direction by Quincy Jones

So much wit and talent and energy crowd the screen in this lavishly filmed variant of the Oz story that it is depressing to realize that the production never had a chance. The trouble is not that memories are stirred of Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, a film so indelibly fixed in the mind that to remake it would be like remaking Gone With the Wind. The Wiz, which came to life first as a Broadway musical, is a cousin of the movie, not a remake. Its independence is firmly based in its cheerful suppositions that Dorothy is a black girl from Harlem and that Oz is downtown somewhere in scary and wonderful Manhattan.

The film's mortal liability is not merely that fantasy is light but money is heavy. Nor is it that in the most expensive film musical ever made (over $30 million), there are sure to be boggy places where what we see is not a fairy tale but a wounded budget projection creeping off to die. The difficulty is not even that by now we are overentertained and grumpy about song-and-dance numbers. (In The Wiz they are bright and clever, but as elaborate as D-day.)

What is wrong is the bankable-star problem. This means that banks will not back a big film unless the star is someone even a banker has heard of. Thus, when you want to cast a black version of The Wizard of Oz, you do not hold an audition for beautiful teen-age black girls who can sing like crazy, though the possibilities of such an audition stagger the imagination. You sign up Diana Ross, who is beautiful, sings Like crazy, and is known to bankers from a career dating back to the early '60s, when she was the lead singer of the Supremes. Ross is 34, so the script calls for a Dorothy who is 24 and a shy schoolteacher. This is awkward, because if the fantasy is to succeed, Dorothy must be childlike enough to be terrified of witches and wizards, and to talk trustingly with a scarecrow, a lion and a tin man. A woman of 24 who is that innocent should not be teaching school.

Never mind, bankable is bankable, so Ross, straining hard to seem as naive as her little dog Toto, is blown by a snowstorm to Munchkin land. This turns out to be the old New York World's Fair Pavilion at Flushing Meadow, where the Wicked Witch of the East has turned hundreds of juvenile spray-paint vandals into graffiti figures. The yellow brick road leads across the Brooklyn Bridge to the World Trade Center, where Richard Pryor reigns as the Wiz. But before Dorothy gets there, she meets a roarious but cowardly lion (Ted Ross) and a marvelous scarecrow (Michael Jackson), hung up on his pole and tormented by rascally birds. Jackson sings a piteous lament, to the effect that "you can't win, you can't break even, and you can't get out of the game." Wiz Composer Charlie Smalls is a gifted comic writer, and soon Nipsey Russell, whose rusty tin man is easily the best characterization of the film, sings an oozy and oleaginous Smalls ballad, Slide Some Oil to Me. To ward the end, awful Evillene, the Wicked Witch of the West (Mabel King), rumbles out a menacing hard-rocker, Don't No body Bring Me No Bad News.

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