A crowded Thanksgiving dinner brings a host of family together in a small Harlem apartment, where a shy, twenty-four-year-old schoolteacher named Dorothy (Diana Ross) lives with her Aunt Em (Theresa Merritt) and Uncle Henry (Stanley Greene). Extremely introverted, Dorothy is teased by Aunt Em for never having been south of 125th Street, as she has delayed moving out to start her own, independent life as an adult.
While Dorothy cleans up after the meal, Dorothy's dog Toto runs out the open kitchen door into a violent snowstorm. She succeeds in retrieving him, but finds herself trapped in the storm. A magical whirlwind made of snow – the work of Glinda, the Good Witch of the South (Lena Horne) – materializes and transports them to the realm of Oz. Released by the snowstorm, Dorothy smashes through an electric "Oz" sky sign as she descends from the atmosphere, and which falls upon and kills Evermean, the Wicked Witch of the East who rules Munchkinland. As a result, Dorothy frees the Munchkins who populate the playground into which she lands; they had been transformed by Evermean into graffiti for "tagging" the park walls.
Dorothy soon meets the Munchkins' main benefactress, Miss One, the Good Witch of the North (Thelma Carpenter), a magical "numbers runner" who gives Evermean's pretty charmed silver slippers to her by teleporting them on Dorothy's feet. However, Dorothy declares she doesn't want the shoes and desperately just wants to get home to Aunt Em. Miss One urges her to follow the yellow brick road to the capital Emerald City and seek the help of the mysterious "Wizard" who she believes holds the power to send Dorothy back to Harlem. After telling her to never take the silver shoes off, the good witch and the Munchkins then disappear and Dorothy is left to search for the road on her own.
The next morning, Dorothy happens upon a Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) made of garbage and rags, and saves him from being viciously teased and picked on by a group of humanoid crows and whom she befriends. The two of them discover the yellow brick road and happily begin to follow it together. The Scarecrow hopes the Wizard might be able to give him the one thing he feels that he lacks – a brain. Along the way to the Emerald City, Dorothy, Toto, and the Scarecrow meet the Tin Man (Nipsey Russell), in an abandoned early 20th-century amusement park and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross), a vain dandy banished from the jungle who hid inside one of the stone lions in front of the New York Public Library. The Tin Man and Lion join them on their quest to find the Wizard, hoping to gain a heart and courage, respectively. Before the five adventurers reach the Emerald City, they must face obstacles such as a deadly subway where they meet a crazy subway peddler (a homeless man) who unleashes evil puppets in his control. They narrowly escape the subway and then encounter the "Poppy" Girls (a reference to the poppy field from the original story), flamboyant prostitutes who attempt to put Dorothy, Toto, and the Lion into an eternal sleep with magic poppy perfume.
Finally reaching the Emerald City (an analogue of the real-life World Trade Center plaza), the quintet gains passage into the city because of Dorothy's ownership of the silver slippers; they marvel at the spectacle of the city and its sophisticated, fashion forward dancers. They are granted an audience with the Wiz (Richard Pryor), who lives at the very top of the Towers. He appears to them as a giant fire-breathing metallic head. He will only grant their wishes if they kill the sister of the Wicked Witch of the East, Evillene (Mabel King), the Wicked Witch of the West, who runs a sweatshop in the underground sewers of Oz. Before they can reach her domain, Evillene learns of their quest to kill her and sends out the Flying Monkeys (a motorcycle gang) to kidnap them.
After a long chase, the Flying Monkeys succeed in capturing their targets and bring them back to Evillene. Vengeful for Dorothy having killed her sister, she dismembers the Scarecrow, flattens the Tin Man, and tortures the Lion in hopes of making Dorothy give her the silver shoes. When she threatens to throw Toto into a fiery cauldron, Dorothy nearly gives in until the Scarecrow hints to her to activate a fire sprinkler switch, which she does. The sprinklers put out the fire but also melt Evillene. She is flushed down into her throne, the lid of which slams shut like a toilet. With Evillene finally gone, her spells lose their power: the Winkies are freed from their permanent costumes (revealing attractive humans underneath) and their sweatshop tools disappear. They rejoice in dance and praise Dorothy as their emancipator. The Flying Monkeys give her and her friends a triumphant ride back to the Emerald City.
Upon arriving, the quartet takes a back door into the Wizard's quarters and discovers that he is a "phony". The "great and powerful Oz" is actually Herman Smith, a failed politician from Atlantic City, New Jersey, who was transported to Oz when a balloon he was flying to promote his campaign to become the city dogcatcher was lost in a storm. The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are distraught that they will never receive their respective brain, heart, and courage, but Dorothy makes them realize that they already have had these things all along. Just as it seems as if she will never be able to get home, Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, appears and implores her to find her way home by searching within and using the magic of the silver slippers by clicking the heels together three times. After thanking Glinda and saying goodbye to her friends, she takes clicks her heels together three times,She is then back near home with Toto in her arms and walks into the apartment.Diana Ross as DorothyMichael Jackson as ScarecrowNipsey Russell as Tin ManTed Ross as Cowardly LionRichard Pryor as Herman Smith/The WizLena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch of the SouthMabel King as Evillene/The Wicked Witch of the WestThelma Carpenter as Freida Winzer/Miss OneTheresa Merritt as Shelby Gale/Aunt EmStanley Greene as Uncle Henry
All songs written by Charlie Smalls, unless otherwise noted.
- "Overture Part I" (instrumental)
- "Overture Part II" (instrumental)
- "The Feeling That We Had" - Aunt Em and Chorus
- "Can I Go On?" (Quincy Jones, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson) - Dorothy
- "Tornado"/"Glinda's Theme" (instrumental)
- "He's the Wizard" - Miss One and Chorus
- "Soon As I Get Home"/"Home" - Dorothy
- "You Can't Win, You Can't Break Even" - Scarecrow and The Four Crows
- "Ease on Down the Road #1" - Dorothy and Scarecrow
- "What Would I Do If I Could Feel?" - Tin Man
- "Slide Some Oil to Me" - Tin Man
- "Ease on Down the Road #2" - Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man
- "I'm a Mean Ole Lion" - Cowardly Lion
- "Ease on Down the Road #3" - Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion
- "Poppy Girls Theme" (Anthony Jackson) (instrumental)
- "Be a Lion" - Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion
- "End of the Yellow Brick Road" (instrumental)
- "Emerald City Sequence" (music: Jones, lyrics: Smalls) - Chorus
- "Is This What Feeling Gets? (Dorothy's Theme)" (music: Jones, lyrics: Ashford & Simpson) - Dorothy (vocal version not used in film)
- "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" - Evillene and the Winkies
- "Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day" (Luther Vandross) - Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion, and Chorus
- "Believe in Yourself (Dorothy)" - Dorothy
- "The Good Witch Glinda" (instrumental)
- "Believe in Yourself (Reprise)" - Glinda the Good Witch
- "Home (Finale)" - Dorothy
The Wiz was the eighth feature film produced by Motown Productions, the film/TV division of Berry Gordy's Motown Records label. Gordy originally wanted the teenaged future R&B singer Stephanie Mills, who had played the role on Broadway, to be cast as Dorothy. When Motown star Diana Ross asked Gordy if she could be cast as Dorothy, he declined, saying that Ross—then 33 years old—was too old for the role. Ross went around Gordy and convinced executive producer Rob Cohen at Universal Pictures to arrange a deal where he would produce the film if Ross was cast as Dorothy. Gordy and Cohen agreed to the deal. Pauline Kael, a film critic, described Ross's efforts to get the film into production as "perhaps the strongest example of sheer will in film history."
After film director John Badham learned that Ross was going to play the part of Dorothy, he decided not to direct the film, and Cohen replaced him with Sidney Lumet. Of his decision not to direct The Wiz, John Badham recalled telling Cohen that he thought Ross was "a wonderful singer. She's a terrific actress and a great dancer, but she's not this character. She's not the little six-year-old girl Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz." Though 20th Century Fox had financially backed the stage musical, they ended up exercising their first refusal rights to the film production, which gave Universal an opening to finance the film. Initially, Universal was so excited about the film's prospects that they did not set a budget for production.
Joel Schumacher's script for The Wiz was influenced by Werner Erhard's teachings and his Erhard Seminars Training ("est") movement, as both Schumacher and Diana Ross were "very enamored of Werner Erhard". "Before I knew it," said Rob Cohen, "the movie was becoming an est-ian fable full of est buzzwords about knowing who you are and sharing and all that. I hated the script a lot. But it was hard to argue with [Ross] because she was recognizing in this script all of this stuff that she had worked out in est seminars." Schumacher spoke positively of the results of the est training, stating that he was "eternally grateful for learning that I was responsible for my life." However, he also complained that "everybody stayed exactly the way they were and went around spouting all this bull****." Of est and Erhard references in the film itself, The Grove Book of Hollywood notes that the speech delivered by Glinda the Good Witch at the end of the film was "a litany of est-like platitudes", and the book also makes est comparisons to the song "Believe in Yourself". Although Joel Schumacher had seen the Broadway play before writing the script, none of the Broadway play's writing was incorporated into the film's.
During production, Lumet felt that the finished film would be "an absolutely unique experience that nobody has ever witnessed before." When asked about any possible influence from MGM's popular 1939 film adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, Lumet stated that "there was nothing to be gained from [the 1939 film] other than to make certain we didn't use anything from it. They made a brilliant movie, and even though our concept is different – they're Kansas, we're New York; they're white, we're black, and the score and the books are totally different – we wanted to make sure that we never overlapped in any area."
Michael Jackson, a former Motown star who by the start of development on The Wiz in 1977, had left Motown for Epic Records with his brothers The Jacksons, was cast as the Scarecrow. Jackson was dedicated to the role, and watched videotapes of gazelles, cheetahs, and panthers in order to learn graceful movements for his part. However Jackson's father Joseph Jackson didn't want him to land the role, as he was managing him at the time, but Jackson refused to listen to his father and decided to be on the movie. Ted Ross and Mabel King were brought in to reprise their respective roles from the stage musical, while Nipsey Russell was cast as the Tin Man. Lena Horne, mother-in-law to Sidney Lumet during the time of production, was cast as Glinda the Good Witch, and comedian Richard Pryor portrayed The Wiz.
The Wiz was filmed at Astoria Studios in Queens, New York. The decaying New York State Pavilion from the 1964 New York World's Fair was used as the set for Munchkinland, Astroland at Coney Island was used for the Tinman scene with The Cyclone as a backdrop, while the World Trade Center served as the Emerald City. The scenes filmed at the Emerald City were elaborate, utilizing 650 dancers, 385 crew members and 1,200 costumes. Costume designer Tony Walton enlisted the help of high fashion designers in New York City for the Emerald City sequence, and obtained exotic costumes and fabric from designers such as Oscar de la Renta and Norma Kamali. Albert Whitlock created the film's visual special effects, while Stan Winston served as the head makeup artist.
Quincy Jones was the musical supervisor and music producer for the film. He later wrote that he initially did not want to work on the film, but did it as a favor to Sidney Lumet. The film production marked Jones' first time working with Michael Jackson, and Jones would later produce three hit albums for Jackson: Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. Jones recalled working with Jackson as one of his favorite experiences from The Wiz, and spoke of Jackson's dedication to his role, comparing his acting style to Sammy Davis, Jr. Jones had a brief cameo during the "Gold" segment of the Emerald City sequence, playing what looks like a fifty-foot grand piano.
The Wiz proved to be a commercial failure, as the $24 million production only earned $13.6 million at the box office. Though prerelease television broadcast rights had been sold to CBS for over $10 million, in the end, the film produced a net loss of $10.4 million for Motown and Universal. At the time, it was the most expensive film musical ever made. The film's failure steered Hollywood studios away from producing the all-black film projects that had become popular during the blaxploitation era of the early to mid-1970s for several years.
The film was released on VHS home video in 1989 by MCA/Universal Home Video (with a reissue in 1992) and was first broadcast on television on CBS on May 5, 1984 (edited to 100 minutes), to capitalize on Michael Jackson's massive popularity at the time. It continues to be broadcast periodically on networks such as BET, TVOne, VH1 Soul, and was the inaugural broadcast on the Bounce TV digital broadcast network. The Wiz is often broadcast on Thanksgiving Day (attributed to the opening scene of Dorothy's family gathered for a Thanksgiving dinner).
The film was released on DVD in 1999; a remastered version entitled The Wiz: 30th Anniversary Edition was released in 2008. Extras on both DVD releases include a 1978 featurette about the film's production and the original theatrical trailer. A Blu-ray version was released in 2010.
Critics panned The Wiz upon its October 1978 release. Many reviewers directed their criticism at Diana Ross, who they believed was too old to play Dorothy. Most agreed that what had worked so successfully on stage simply did not translate well to the screen. Hischak's Through the Screen Door: What Happened to the Broadway Musical When It Went to Hollywood criticized "Joel Schumacher's cockamamy screenplay", and called "Believe in Yourself" the score's weakest song. He described Diana Ross's portrayal of Dorothy as: "cold, neurotic and oddly unattractive"; and noted that the film was "a critical and box office bust". In his work History of the American Cinema, Harpole characterized the film as "one of the decade's biggest failures", and, "the year's biggest musical flop". The Grove Book of Hollywood noted that "the picture finished off Diana Ross's screen career", as the film was Ross's final theatrical feature. In his book Blockbuster, Tom Shone referred to The Wiz as "expensive crud". In the book Mr. and Mrs. Hollywood, the author criticized the script, noting, "The Wiz was too scary for children, and too silly for adults." Ray Bolger, who played the Scarecrow in the 1939 The Wizard of Oz film, did not think highly of The Wiz, stating "The Wiz is overblown and will never have the universal appeal that the classic MGM musical has obtained."
Michael Jackson's performance as the Scarecrow was one of the only positively reviewed elements of the film, with critics noting that Jackson possessed "genuine acting talent" and "provided the only genuinely memorable moments." Of the results of the film, Jackson stated: "I don't think it could have been any better, I really don't." In 1980, Jackson stated that his time working on The Wiz was "my greatest experience so far . . . I'll never forget that." The film received a positive critique for its elaborate set design, and the book American Jewish Filmmakers noted that it "features some of the most imaginative adaptations of New York locales since the glory days of the Astaire-Rogers films." In a 2004 review of the film, Christopher Null wrote positively of Ted Ross and Richard Pryor's performances. However, Null's overall review of the film was critical, and he wrote that other than the song "Ease on Down the Road", "the rest is an acid trip of bad dancing, garish sets, and a Joel Schumacher-scripted mess that runs 135 agonizing minutes." A 2005 piece by Hank Stuever in The Washington Post described the film as "a rather appreciable delight, even when it's a mess", and felt that the singing – especially Diana Ross's – was "a marvel".
The New York Times analyzed the film within a discussion of the genre of blaxploitation: "As the audience for blaxploitation dwindled, it seemed as if Car Wash and The Wiz might be the last gasp of what had been a steadily expanding black presence in mainstream filmmaking." The St. Petersburg Times noted, "Of course, it only took one flop like The Wiz (1978) to give Hollywood an excuse to retreat to safer (i.e., whiter) creative ground until John Singleton and Spike Lee came along. Yet, without blaxploitation there might not have been another generation of black filmmakers, no Denzel Washington or Angela Bassett, or they might have taken longer to emerge." The Boston Globe commented, "the term 'black film' should be struck from the critical vocabulary. To appreciate just how outmoded, deceptive and limiting it is, consider the following, all of which have been described as black films, . . ." and characterized The Wiz in a list which also featured 1970s films Shaft, Blacula, and Super Fly.
Despite its lack of critical or commercial success in its original release, The Wiz became a cult classic, especially because it features Michael Jackson's only starring theatrical film role. With Lena Horne's death in 2010, Diana Ross is the only living cast member of the film.
The Wiz was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Art Direction (Tony Walton, Philip Rosenberg, Edward Stewart, Robert Drumheller), Best Costume Design, Best Original Music Score and Best Cinematography, but did not win any of them.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:"Ease on Down the Road" – Nominated
On 1979's NAACP Image Awards, Michael Jackson received the Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture Award for The Wiz.