Three years ago I was very upset with NYC’s Film Forum for excluding “The Wiz” from an otherwise decent Sidney Lumet retrospective. I mean, they didn’t include much more than the hits and classics. It too lacked his sole, Oscar-nominated, under-seen documentary “King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis” (which I spotlighted over at Nothing But the Doc yesterday as something I need to see) as well as most of his lesser works. But while “The Wiz” is not one of the favored classics, having been a box office failure and still critically disregarded, it is both historically and fantastically important to the Big Apple. If anyone, New Yorkers should be able to appreciate parts of it, and the series could have been a great opportunity for a Q&A discussion (with production designer/costume designer Tony Walton?) of the musical film’s inspired employment of the city’s landmarks.
On a basic level, “The Wiz” is kind of like Lumet’s “Popeye.” A great director of movies for adults takes on a big cartoonish song and dance effort and fails miserably. But Lumet’s film isn’t so good for the kids, particularly due to the creepy subway monsters and biker monkeys, and where Altman’s comic strip adaptation is currently gaining recognition among critics and scholars, I doubt there’s so much love secretly brewing for the all-black-cast version of “The Wizard of Oz.” I can’t even say that I love it, but ever since seeing it just a few years ago I can’t stop thinking about what it does well. And that’s take prominent locations of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens and transform them in a way that’s never been done before or since.
Aside from its historically significant shoot at Astoria Studios (a landmark itself), almost every sequence of “The Wiz” was filmed on a major city landmark or a replica of such. New York State Pavillion is Munchkinland, the World Trade Center plaza is the Emerald City, the Cowardly Lion derives from the lion statues of the Public Library steps and Coney Island, Shea Stadium, Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, Hoyt-Schermerhorn subway station and Times Square are important places as well, all utilized for heightened representations of both the dream and the nightmare of New York. Meanwhile, familiar problems to New Yorkers of the time (and in the past) such as graffiti, homelessness, garbage, urban decay, political corruption, labor exploitation, heroin, prostitution, and more are portrayed along the way.
In certain ways, it is Lumet’s best depiction of the “horror city” of the Lindsay/Beame era while its spectacular and artificial aspects also seem to usher in the deluded fantasies of the Koch administration that was just beginning. Is Dorothy (Diana Ross) afraid to leave her Harlem home, never going south of 125th Street, because she’s afraid of the evils of the city, and the Oz of “The Wiz” illustrates those fears, or is this Oz more a world of imagination, a magic kingdom like the one built up and mystified for and by people who’ve never actually been to NYC landmarks like those renovated into dream version — including people who, like Dorothy, live here (it’s not an accident that Manhattan is the place the road of opportunity leads to). It reminds me of how I viewed the city as a youth up in Connecticut: scary but exciting, amazing but intimidating, wonderful yet dangerous. A conflicted space of extreme positives and negatives.
Having Dorothy’s “further,” alternate-dimensional world she winds up in be so distinctively and recognizably her own city only dressed up, the idea is relative to how MGM’s “Wizard of Oz” incorporates the “real” world people of Kansas into Oz alter-egos. I’m surprised Lumet didn’t populate the opening Thanksgiving scene with Michael Jackson and the rest of the Oz-dwellers as “real” world characters, too. But that kind of makes the locations of the film the true characters of Oz, which is kind of how the landmarks are to NYC and to those films shot here.
Obviously some locations are gone, such as the Twin Towers, of course, and the Times Square of 30 years ago. When Shea was torn town recently, it was the sequence from “The Wiz” that made me wish it could remain. Home of the Mets and the first baseball stadium I ever saw MLB game in? Not as important to me. And whether or not this film is Lumet’s best or worst, it’s undeniably better because it was made by a filmmaker who knows NYC inside and out. Among the many things I thank him for after his passing this weekend, “The Wiz” is special to my heart as a lover of New York in film, and I wish my millions of neighbors felt the same.