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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Brooklyn Close-Up: The Wiz

Just a cursory glance at the roster of legendary talent behind The Wiz is enough to clue you into its prestigious position in black film history. Despite the enduring popularity of Cabin in the Sky, the original Sparkle, and recent big-budget successes like Dreamgirls, the African-American musical remains a small field of largely untapped potential. This ambitious, distinctly urban take on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—which had its first incarnation as a Tony Award-winning, Motown-bankrolled “Super Soul” Broadway production—remains one of the few black musicals to win a permanent spot in pop culture consciousness.

The film’s depiction of a transformed New York City landscape filled with monstrous, man-eating garbage cans (at Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station) and grown-up vices (a scene shot at Eighth Avenue in Times Square hints at drugs and prostitution) is at times disarmingly menacing. But what has contributed to its cult canonization over the decades is its unique status as one of the few authentic family films in the black musical genre, a position bolstered by its familiar source material and heartfelt message of courage and self-discovery.

Even more crucially, the film was designed to be palatable to multiple generations of black audiences. Like no other film before or after it, The Wiz brilliantly straddles several eras of African-American stardom by bringing together 1940s and 50s jazz pioneers Lena Horne (sparkly and beneficent in her performance as Glinda) and Quincy Jones; cream-of-the-crop Motown veterans like Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Ashford & Simpson (who wrote new songs specifically for this film version); and future luminaries like Luther Vandross, an original composer on the stage version who would define the sound of R&B in the next decade.

The backstory behind The Wiz has become the stuff of showbiz legend. Diana Ross—who at the time was one of the three highest paid actresses in Hollywood—reportedly went over Motown executive Berry Gordy’s head to snatch the role of Dorothy away from Stephanie Mills, who originated the role on stage. After director John Badham abandoned the project in protest, Lena Horne’s son-in-law Sidney Lumet came on board. And for all that trouble, the film was a commercial disappointment upon its initial release—not unlike its 1939 predecessor, The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland.

Our passionately participatory audience at the last BAMcinématek screening of The Wiz (which was part of the first annual BAMcinemaFest in 2009) is a testament to how drastically a film’s fortunes can change. When Michael Jackson tragically passed only one week before the previously scheduled screening, the movie attracted a sold-crowd. Many fans seemed to know all the lyrics and weren’t shy about singing along. We welcome all Motown and Oz lovers back to our Brooklyn Close-Up presentation of the film on Monday, December 17, to experience MJ’s scarecrow strut, the incredible sets, and the Busby Berkeley-worthy ensemble choreography by George Faison (whose Suite Otis was performed by the Alvin Ailey company at BAM in 2009) on the big screen.

Through the years, Broadway, R&B, and even jazz artists have reinterpreted songs from The Wiz. We’ve gathered our top five cover versions, which just might inspire your own renditions on Monday night!

1. Before Michael and Diana’s duet down the Brooklyn Bridge, the disco group Consumer Rapport landed on the soul charts with its version of “Ease on Down the Road,” its only major hit.

2. Dorothy’s big number, “Home,” has become a go-to show-stopper for big-voiced divas—everyone from Barbra Streisand to Kristin Chenoweth to Jazmine Sullivan. But this pre-stardom performance by a young Whitney Houston on the Merv Griffin show might be the very best.

3. Desiree Coleman was one of many excellent R&B singers who never quite found their way in the 1980s, an uncertain time for the genre and for her label, Motown. Here she appears on The Arsenio Hall Show singing a churchy version of “Be a Lion.” (Embedding was disabled for this video, but you can find it here.)

4. Shortly after his song “Everybody Rejoice” was chosen for inclusion in The Wiz’s Broadway incarnation (retitled “A Brand New Day” in the film), Luther Vandross recorded it with a group of other singers.

5. Michael Jackson’s televised 30th anniversary celebration featured a Wiz medley performed by contemporary artists. Check out Jill Scott in scarecrow get-up, singing “You Can’t Win” at 3:52.

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