Prime Video movie of the day: The Wizard of Oz gets a strange makeover in The Wiz

A screenshot of a poster for The Wiz, which shows the main characters standing in front of the movie's gold colored title
The Wiz is a reimagining of The Wizard of Oz's timeless tale. (Image credit: Motown Productions)
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Describing The Wiz (out now on Prime Video, aka one of the world's best streaming services) feels rather like telling someone about a weird dream you had. Essentially, it's The Wizard of Oz but, instead of the Dorothy that many of us know and love, the lead character an aged-up, Black version of the character played by Diana Ross. The titular wizard – going by his 'The Wiz' title – is portrayed by Richard Pryor, and none other than pop legend Michael Jackson is The Scarecrow. Yes, really. Oh, and it's also directed by Sidney Lumet, who is best known for gritty dramas like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Go figure.

Based on the 1974 stage play of the same name, which itself takes heaps of inspiration from The Wizard of Oz, there are clear similarities between The Wiz and its main influence – not least its main characters, fantasy setting, and earworm-inducing soundtrack. That said, it's also something of a cautionary tale. The Wiz showed that you can spend a huge amount of money on a production and hire some of the world's biggest stars, but you'll still end up with a film that doesn't quite work. In my mind, it's fascinating to watch, but it's definitely flawed.

What's wrong with The Wiz?

The Radio Times best summed it up, calling The Wiz "one of the most expensive movie flops of all time". That appears to have been down to the focus it placed on its A-list actors, which led to some significant alterations to The Wizard of Oz's familiar story. 

Indeed, as Time managzine put it at the time: "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". And that, dear reader, is a problem: Ross is a grown woman, whereas Dorothy is supposed to be a young girl. By rewriting the story with an adult as the main character, The Wiz lost the sense of childish innocence and wonder that’s in the original story. Little wonder, then, that people weren't enthused with it.

There were, however, some positive reviews that The Wiz was met with. For one, Variety praised most of the cast, although its reviewer remarked of Jackson: "Though vocally great, needs more acting exposure". Famous critic Roger Ebert praised Jackson's warmth, but only awarded the movie three out of five stars. He called its special effects "sensational", but later added: "The movie has great moments and a lot of life... [but] it hedges its bets by wanting to be sophisticated and universal, childlike and knowing, appealing to both a mass audience and to media insiders." 

Of those who saw the movie over 45 years ago, The Washington Post's review was perhaps the most glowing of all, saying: "Sidney Lumet's spectacular, joyous production of The Wiz generates a mood of wonder and sentimental rapture recalling the arrival of the Mother Ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind". High praise indeed for a flick that we'll refrain from adding to our best Prime Video movies guide.

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Carrie Marshall

Writer, broadcaster, musician and kitchen gadget obsessive Carrie Marshall (Twitter) has been writing about tech since 1998, contributing sage advice and odd opinions to all kinds of magazines and websites as well as writing more than a dozen books. Her memoir, Carrie Kills A Man, is on sale now. She is the singer in Glaswegian rock band HAVR.