OCTOBER 2, 2018

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalITimes.jpgn 2018, the film BLACK PANTHER became the second top grossing film of the year and the  ninth top grossing film of all time. Helmed by a black director (RYAN COOGLER) and featuring a largely black cast, the taboo that a black film would never crossover to white moviegoers was shattered. Even critics were on board with this epic film set in the ever profitable MARVEL COMIC UNIVERSE. The critical consensus on ROTTEN TOMATOES was a love letter, reading: "BLACK PANTHER elevates superhero cinema to thrilling new heights while telling one of the MCU's most absorbing stories—and introducing some of it's most fully realized characters." The success of BLACK PANTHER is an anomaly in cinema. Black heroes doing extraordinary things in the most extraordinary circumstances was often limited to guys like WILL SMITH. The world of super heroes, science fiction and fantasy has historically been a white neighborhood where a select few friends of color could come over and play. The idea of filling a magical, fantastical world with black actors and talent wasn't something that historically made Hollywood executives see dollar signs. But in the late seventies, it did.

http://www.rockwired.com/TheWizPlaybill.jpegIn 1975, THE WIZ opened on Broadway and instantaneously became a commercial and critical success earning the production an extended stay on The Great White Way and winning seven TONY AWARDS that year.  The secret of the musical's success was simple. It was a retelling of the L FRANK BAUM children's classic THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ with an African American slant armed with a soulful, rollicking score written by CHARLIE SMALLS that put a little spring into the steps of a young girl trying to find the mysterious and titular Wizard that was going to get her back to Kansas.

In the era of blockbusters like STAR WARS and the reasonable returns on blaxploitation films, why the hell wouldn't a Broadway juggernaut like THE WIZ stand a chance on the silver screen? That was the reasoning of BERRY GORDY - the founder of MOTOWN RECORDS. In the seventies, the legendary record label had branched out into television and film with the establishment of MOTOWN PRODUCTIONS.  They hit pay dirt with their first film - the 1972 BILLIE HOLLIDAY biopic LADY SINGS THE BLUES, which earned it's star - DIANA ROSS - an ACADEMY AWARD nomination for Best Actress and a platinum selling soundtrack album. Other hits from MOTOWN's film division included MAHOGANY (also starring DIANA ROSS) and the disco comedy THANK GOD IT'S FRIDAY.  For this cinematic version of THE  WIZ, MOTOWN was going to partner with UNIVERSAL PICTURES. Director JOHN BADHMAN (SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER) was to helm the film and GORDY had his eye on R&B starlet STEPHANIE MILLS - who originated the role of DOROTHY on Broadway - to fill the silver slippers for the big screen. Everything looked like it was set in stone, until the First Lady of MOTOWN came knocking.


That's right! DIANA ROSS was two films into what looked like a promising film career that went hand in hand with what she was able to do musically. Why wouldn't MOTOWN's most precious commodity be pitch perfect for this new project? Somehow a deal was made and a then-33-year old DIANA ROSS cinched the role of DOROTHY - a role written for a fourteen year old girl. When it was announced that ROSS would play the lead, BADHAM stepped down as director and was replaced by SIDNEY LUMET (12 ANGRY MEN, SERPICO, NETWORK). JOEL SCHUMACHER (Whose then-humble credits included writing the scripts for SPARKLE and CARWASH) was charged with writing the script which set itself apart from the stage version by making ROSS's DOROTHY a 24-year old kindergarten teacher. It also moved her home away from the plains of Kansas to New York City.

Accompanying MS. ROSS on her journey to see the Wizard was a young, innocent MICHAEL JACKSON, breaking free of the constraints placed on him by the demands of his role as frontman of THE JACKSONS. Who knew that pop messiah status was  just around the corner for this young man? In this film, we get a taste of the star power to come. Also on the journey was comedian, dancer and HOLLYWOOD SQUARES familiar NIPSEY RUSSELL as the TIN MAN while comedian RICHARD PRYOR had the thankless, non musical role of the great and powerful WIZARD OF OZ.  The only two actors from the stage production included TED ROSS (no relation to DIANA) as THE COWARDLY LION and MABEL KING as EVILLENE - THE WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST. Bringing the THE WIZ's magnificent songbook to life for the screen was GRAMMY winning producer QUINCY JONES, who was credited as the music supervisor and arranger.  How could this juggernaut fail?

On October 28, 1978, THE WIZ hit the movie theaters with an unexpected thud both critically and commercially. The $24 million production only brought in a little more than half of it's budget and critics directed their disdain toward DIANA ROSS's portrayal of the DOROTHY charging that ROSS was simply too old to play DOROTHY. One of the few light spots that critics took notice of was MICHAEL JACKSON's performance as the SCARECROW citing JACKSON's "genuine acting talent".

Alongside critical derision and box office indifference, THE WIZ is also credited as being the nail in the coffin for blaxploitation. It would be seven years before THE COLOR PURPLE would hit theaters and become a box office and critical success with a string of OSCAR nominations but not without controversy. In the late eighties, SPIKE LEE would play a significant part in increasing a black presence on the silver screen, but one director can only do so much. The absence of black cinema throughout the course of the REAGAN era was certainly not lost on film critics GENE SISKEL and ROGER EBERT. Below is a video of the two discussing THE WIZ and the end of black cinema.

It's all too easy to dismiss a film like THE WIZ in light of the success of films like BLACK PANTHER and JORDAN PEELE's OSCAR-winning screenplay for his hit film GET OUT. With the cult classic film turning forty this year, ROCKWIRED has come up with a list of thirty things that make this electrifying re-telling of the WIZARD OF OZ such a marvel.


http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalHTimes.jpgaving arranged for such musical greats as BILLY ECKSTINE, SARAH VAUGHAN, FRANK SINATRA, ELLA FITZGERALD and DINAH WASHINGTON, and having scored such films as IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, CACTUS FLOWER,  IN COLD BLOOD and the miniseries ROOTS, JONES gave the proceedings a tremendous musical pedigree. His treatment of CHARLIE SMALLS' epic score conveys both grandiosity and intimacy - which is just the sort of treatment that L. FRANK BAUM's timeless tale deserves.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalTTimes.jpghe success that JACKSON was able to achieve following the release of this film is the stuff that legends are made of, but what gets overlooked is the man's dedicated acting chops. Had the reaction to THE WIZ not been as swift and harsh as it was, who knew what trajectory the man's acting could've taken? In future music videos, his presence could not be denied, but if given a meaty script, we have the sense that he could've delivered great joy and great pathos, all at once.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalITimes.jpgt's the signature song from THE WIZ and when I was a kid, it was performed at countless talent shows. For the purpose of this list, we are looking at that song's first appearance in the film. When DOROTHY and the SCARECROW join forces and slowly discover the golden path that leads to the Emerald City, it proves to be the movie's first celebratory moment. Curiously, the scene is filmed from quite a distance with the backs of the actors to the camera. MICHAEL JACKSON's dance moves are exuberant and his innate enthusiasm for the work clearly rubs off on ROSS. With all of the controversy and tragedy that has come to define JACKSON's life, seeing this joyous, innocent moment brings a tear to your eye. We just wish the DP had focused more on the actors and their dancing  than on the set.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalETimes.jpgxuding the very charm and wit that made him a hit on such shows as HOLLYWOOD SQUARES and DEAN MARTIN CELEBRITY ROASTS, NIPSEY RUSSELL takes the TIN MAN role to heartfelt heights. Strange, considering that his character isn't supposed to have a heart. It was a shame he had to rust himself on occasion with his annoying crying, but you certainly didn't mind the man's company on the yellow brick road.  

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalRTimes.jpgOSS is one of two veterans from the original stage production of THE WIZ back in 1975. His portrayal of THE COWARDLY LION earned him one of the seven TONY AWARDS that THE WIZ walked away with that year. On the big screen, ROSS brings all of the lovable bluster and dandiness that made his portrayal of THE LION a hit with audiences. Curiously, he is the only compadre of DOROTHY's to have a name - FLEETWOOD COUP DEVILLE. Eh, it works for us!


http://www.rockwired.com/HomeTheWiz.jpghttp://www.rockwired.com/CapitalMTimes.jpguch of the criticism of this film was directed at DIANA ROSS, and at times, it is deserved. It's perfectly reasonable that you would want to make the character of DOROTHY a grown woman if you are going to have the first woman of MOTOWN play her. Just don't make her cry every five minutes like JUDY GARLAND did in the 1939 movie. It probably would've been a better movie if ROSS had played the role with a little more sass and spark. After her OSCAR nominated turn in LADY SINGS THE BLUES and MAHOGANY, we all knew she had the chops. Despite her acting choices, it is MS. ROSS' vocal performance that steals the show and when she takes the film to the finish line with HOME, we're with the woman all the way.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalTTimes.jpghe land of OZ has always been billed as a land of great peril, going all the way back to the writings of L. FRANK BAUM. Hell, the place was no picnic in the 1939 film with it's lions, tigers, bears and flying monkeys. But given the big city feel of  THE WIZ, the peril looks and feels even more menacing.  Once DOROTHY's band of allies is established, they ease on down to an empty subway station where  they are accosted by a rat-like street peddler who unleashes  two large, menacing puppets their direction. Could these puppets do something? We don't know. They just look scary! More danger is afoot as a our heroes remain in the surreal caverns of OZ's subway system. THE SCARECROW is attacked by fanged trash cans. The TIN MAN is electrocuted by a fuse box that has come alive and DOROTHY becomes trapped by moving columns. This is where THE LION gets to demonstrate the very courage that he feels he needs from a mysterious wizard. The scene demonstrates to us that OZ isn't for the faint of heart. Isn't the same subway station where MICHAEL JACKSON filmed BAD nine years later?

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalHTimes.jpgaving grown up on equal parts the stage soundtrack and the film soundtrack to THE WIZ, I'm a bigger fan of THE SCARECROW's musical moment in the stage version. I WAS BORN ON THE DAY BEFORE YESTERDAY was a gospel charged delight that summed up the brainless SCARECROW's dilemma. In the film, we have THE CROW ANTHEM, better known as YOU CAN'T WIN (YOU CAN'T BREAK EVEN). The song was written for the stage but was cut just before the Broadway opening. Brought back for the film, the soul disco number is tailor made to give MICHAEL JACKSON a single and while the song certainly has it's delights, it lacks the punch of I WAS BORN... The single didn't get much chart action, but it did mark the first time that JACKSON and QUINCY JONES would work together.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalWTimes.jpghen I saw this movie in the theaters, a friend of mine whispered to me to that the woman playing the WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST was MRS. THOMAS from WHAT'S HAPPENING. Past the hideous makeup and her shouting, it made all of the sense in the world. Whenever RAJ THOMAS would get his whooping, the show would cut away. In THE WIZ, I could see all he had to endure as MABEL KING's EVILLENE cracked her whip sending the winkies into a frenzy.  EVILLENE's entrance onto the big screen is about as terrifying as DARTH VADER's in STAR WARS and KING chews up the scenery and gleefully spits it out. We'll get to her big music number later.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalLTimes.jpgENA HORNE was the mother-in-law to director SIDNEY LUMET, and while I'm sure that exigency may have been the reason for casting her as GLINDA THE GOOD WITCH OF THE SOUTH, I could easily see another reason for placing her in the roll of  OZ's most benevolent and powerful denizen. HORNE was a trailblazer in recording and cinema and paved the way for women like DIANA ROSS. Who better to lead the way home for ROSS's DOROTHY than HORNE? When the film hit theaters, critics charged JOEL SHUMACHER's script for it's EST-ian agenda. In the seventies, WERNER ERHARD was a self help guru famous for his ERHARD SEMINARS TRAINING (EST for short) aimed at "transforming one's ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself." Got it?  Anywho, HORNE delivers in both the role of GLINDA and in the pep talk that DOROTHY needed to hear after finding out THE WIZ was a phony. EST-ian? Sure, but who the hell cares about that now? Believing in yourself is a good thing.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalTTimes.jpgHE WIZ takes the nominally powered WITCH OF THE NORTH and turns her into a numbers runner charged with introducing our heroine to the land of OZ and building up this great and powerful Wizard who can send the Harlem schoolteacher home. Jazz singer and actress THELMA CARPENTER brings a world weariness to the role of MISS ONE and kicks off the first number set in OZ. HE'S THE WIZARD is a bluesy stroll that lays it all out for both DOROTHY and the audience. And them creepy munchkins aren't slouches either with choreography brought to us by the LOUIS JOHNSON DANCE THEATER.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalTTimes.jpghere is a point in the film where we forget all about DOROTHY's struggle to get home all because  THE LION takes center stage. Even though he saved his newfound friends from various perils in the OZ subway system, THE LION is a character who needs a great deal of support after feeling he dropped the ball in preventing himself and DOROTHY from becoming overwhelmed by THE POISONED POPPIES (OZ sex workers armed with a sparkly dust that knocks you out). DOROTHY leads the pack in building up the self-proclaimed king of the jungle's confidence. It's a stirring moment that brings the quartet even closer together.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalOTimes.jpgur merry quartet have made it to the end of the yellow brick road and have entered the gates of the Emerald City thanks to the flash of DOROTHY's silver slippers. Once inside, the gang and the audience are treated to a spectacle that combines the glamour of  STUDIO 54 with the grandeur of STAR WARS. Filmed at the  World Trade Center Plaza (THE WIZ's domain is a space age take on the twin towers), LUMET and company succeeded at making this modern Emerald City  an Orwellian spectacle complete with walking cameras and microphones and large television screens. The Emerald citizens are dressed to the nines in OSCAR DE LA RENTA and vogueing, twelve years before MADONNA made it a "thing". Once again, some nosebleed wide angle filming does the sequence a slight disservice. Keep your eyes opened for a brief appearance by QUINCY JONES.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalTTimes.jpgHE WIZARD gets one a hell of a set up in this movie. When DOROTHY and the gang are allowed an audience with his greatness, we have no idea what to expect. The WIZARD from the 1939 film gives us a general blueprint to work with and yet, that sequence works a little better than the one here. What stands out in this film is how absolutely terrifying this mysterious WIZ actually is! He is a large chrome head that exhales fire, speaks in SENSURROUND and has blinding light emitting from his eyes. DIANA ROSS seriously burned the corneas of her eyes in this sequence and had to take time off from shooting.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalATimes.jpgutomatons with big hearts have been a thing since L. FRANK BAUM put pen to paper in writing THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ in 1901. RUSSELL's portrayal hasn't gone down in history in the same way that JACK HALEY's did from the 1939 film, but we've got to give the man props for showing us what the TIN MAN was made of in the plaintive soul ballad WHAT WOULD I DO IF I COULD FEEL. The moment is so beautiful it makes the figure carvings on the wall come alive and start singing back up. It's a little creepy, but it's still beautiful.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalTTimes.jpghere is a little bit of a triple negative in ths title there, but the song is one of the strongest from the film's soundtrack. The gospel-charged number has got one powerful singer in MABEL KING who drives home the fact that EVILLENE is one bitch you don't want to piss off. You almost feel bad for the villainess having lost her sister so abruptly, but there is no excuse for treating the winkies so badly. KING, like TED ROSS, was a veteran from the original stage production from 1975.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalITimes.jpgf the film version of THE WIZ isn't your cup of tea, you could always enjoy the film's soulful soundtrack. Even before seeing the movie, I knew the music pretty well and actually had no idea it had any connection to THE WIZARD OF OZ. The flawlessly produced QUINCY JONES soundtrack is a standalone epic. There would be no movie without it and we're about to touch on the legendary music teaming that took place for the first time during the making of this film. As a matter of fact, a few years ago when I found this at a vinyl shop, every customer in the store walked over to touch it and try to talk me out of buying it so they could.  What's that they say about finders keepers?

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalJTimes.jpgust when all seemed to be lost for DOROTHY and her gang in the clutches of EVILLENE, a conveniently placed fire sprinkler switch gets pulled by our heroine and that just about does it for the WICKED WITCH OF THE WEST. From there, a celebration ensues - the likes of which haven't been seen since Israel was freed from Egypt. DOROTHY's victory could've simply ended with everybody dancing but no. The winkies shed their monstrous exteriors and reveal that they are toned, lithe dancers who favor briefs instead of boxers. Now the party is really getting started, but it's all good, clean fun. Oh, and how about that FAMILY GUY sketch years later?

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalITimes.jpgt's not lost on us that we're not going in order. There is no way in hell that we were going to let THE COWARDLY LION's opening number go unmentioned. How could we not mention it? It starts off as one of the more terrifying moments in the film when DOROTHY, THE SCARECROW and THE TIN MAN notice a lion statue eyeballing them. After they silently inspect the statue, they hear a growl and the statue breaks apart and out comes TED ROSS with claws exposed and synching his fangs into the R&B strutter I'M A MEAN OLE LION. Of course we learn in the course of a few minutes that the offensive is all pretend.

http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalWTimes.jpge are at the end of our list and we are reminded of the scene where DOROTHY says goodbye to the friends she has made along the way before singing her final number and clicking her heels three times. Watching this movie in 2018 can be a sad affair when you realize that out of the entire main cast, DIANA ROSS is the only survivor. Just as sad was the film's fate at the box office, but time has turned this ambitious black musical into an enduring cult classic. Even NBC's ratings and critical hit  THE WIZ LIVE in 2015 borrowed aspects of the film version.  The film signaled a stop to DIANA ROSS's acting career, but it did little to slow down her music career. In 1980, she released her most successful solo album DIANA, on MOTOWN with a little help from the production team of NILE RODGERS and BERNARD EDWARDS of CHIC. It went on the sell nine million copies. For the length of this article we have hinted at the burgeoning artist-producer relationship between MICHAEL JACKSON and QUINCY JONES. This movie is where it all began and you can hear hints of musical surprises to come throughout this film's glorious sound track. The JACKSON-JONES partnership would go on to be one of the most lucrative in music history resulting in three multi-platinum albums - OFF THE WALL (1980), THRILLER (1982) and BAD (1987).


http://www.rockwired.com/CapitalB.jpgrian Lush is a music industry professional and entrepreneur. In 2005 he launched the online music site Rockwired.com to help promote new music artists in conjunction with the weekly radio show Rockwired Live which aired on KTSTFM.COM from 2005 - 2009. In 2010 He launched the daily podcast series Rockwired Radio Profiles which features exclusive interviews and music. He has also developed and produced the online radio shows Jazzed and Blue - Profiles in Blues and Jazz, Aboriginal Sounds - A Celebration of American Indian and First Nations Music, The Rockwired Rock N Roll Mixtape Show and The Rockwired Artist of the Month Showcase. In 2012, Brian Lush and his company Rockwired Media LLC launched the monthly digital online publication Rockwired Magazine. The magazine attracts over 75,000 readers a month and shows no signs of stopping. Rockwired Magazine also bares the distinction of being the first American Indian-owned rock magazine. Brian Lush is an enrolled member of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Brian Lush's background in music journalism, radio and podcast hosting, podcast production, web design, publicity, advertising sales, social media and online marketing, strategic editorial planning and branding have all made Rockwired a name that is trusted and respected throughout the independent music industry.

CONTACT BRiAN LUSH AT: djlush@rockwired.com