It's the 40th anniversary of The Wiz! To honor this classic piece of African-American film history, we're easing on down the road to rediscover 40 things we love about the film that exemplifies why it has stood the test of time.
1) Sidney Lumet taking a chance
Famed director Sidney Lumet, the man behind critically-acclaimed films like 12 Angry Men and Serpico, did something no one expected; he decided to adapt The Wiz. Initially, The Wiz was a Tony Award-winning play starring Stephanie Mills, but when Lumet took on the film adaptation, he set out to make it unlike anything audiences had seen. It's safe to say he achieved his goal.
2) Michael Jackson's performance
One of the standout performances from the film is Michael Jackson's acrobatic performance as the Scarecrow. We already know he can sing and dance, but his talents were used to expert effect as he jolted his body to comedic effect. It's in this film that Jackson's comparisons to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly are well-earned.
3) Nipsey Russell's heartfelt "If I Could Feel"
Nipsey Russell wasn't a singer; he was a comedian, dancer and poet. But in The Wiz, his performance of "If I Could Feel" shows off his singing ability poignantly. His vocal style is reminiscent of Al Jarreau, providing a contemplative take on this otherwise emotional song.
4) Lena Horne
Sure, The Wiz has greats like Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, but truly, the biggest coup the film garnered was snagging Lena Horne as Glinda the Good Witch of the South. Horne, a film legend and civil rights activist, lent her powerful voice and presence to this role, inspiring legions of fans with her performance of "Believe." One iconic line from her part of the film is "If we know ourselves, we're always home, anywhere." Those words ring just as true today as they did in 1978.
5) Richard Pryor as The Wiz
Richard Pryor was at the top of his comedic game when he was tapped to play the titular role in the film. Pryor is perfectly cast as The Wiz, a man who uses his bluster to become the leader of Oz. The Wiz's background as a washed-up politician from New Jersey also keeps with the film's theme of providing a dose of social commentary.
6) Mabel King as Evillene
Before The Wiz, Mabel King was best known for playing Mabel Thomas on ABC's What's Happening!!, but for many of us, she's probably best remembered as Evillene, a slavedriver who ran a sweatshop and complained about bad news. It's a role she originated in the original 1975 stage production, and she brought her same energy from the stage to the screen. She was grotesque, but despite that, she's still one of the best parts of the film. You can't have Dorothy's story without an evil queen, and Evillene is a worthy challenger.
7) Ted Ross as the Lion
Like King, Ross also comes from the original stage production of The Wiz. By being cast in the film, both Ross and King act as the physical links between the stage and screen. King also brought a bit of levity to the film, keeping you engaged in his journey toward courage. Plus, his extravagant costume, complete with heeled "feet" and a huge convertible shawl collar, is a character in its own right.
8) Diana Ross' portrayal of Dorothy's emotional growth
Like The Wizard of Oz, The Wiz focuses on the challenges and joys that come with growing up. While the original film focuses more on plot, The Wiz arguably takes more consideration of its characterization, particularly where Dorothy is concerned. Dorothy might be older in The Wiz, but she still has insecurities she has to tackle and self-esteem to develop. Her growth from dependent immaturity to confident adulthood is the same journey we all have to take through life. Dorothy's struggles as an adult also show how the first steps of that journey can occur at any age.
9) Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion as aspects of human growth
The Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion aren't just fanciful characters; they can be seen as different aspects of the human condition. Throughout life, we often feel like we aren't enough--we might feel like we don't have enough heart, enough courage or enough smarts. But what life's challenges force us to realize is that we have everything we already need; we need to utilize the gifts that are already inside us.
10) Luther Vandross wrote "Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day"
Several musical greats worked on The Wiz, including Luther Vandross. Vandross wrote the boisterous "Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day." He also sang uncredited in the film.
11) Quincy Jones' soundtrack
Quincy Jones ruled the '60s and '70s, and his might over the music industry helped The Wiz remain a beloved classic. Jones' role in the film was to adapt the songs written by Vandross and Charlie Smalls for the big screen. The songs eventually took on a life of their own, jumping from their Broadway origins to radio-ready productions. You probably can't say you haven't jammed out to Jones' adaptations of "Emerald City" or "You Can't Win" at least once.
12) Ashford and Simpson wrote "Can I Go On"
You remember the first song Ross sings as she laments her shyness and low self-esteem? That song, "Can I Go On," was written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. They also wrote the follow-up to that song, "Is This What Feeling Gets," which made it to the soundtrack but was cut from the film. These two songs might be the saddest songs in the movie, but they are also some of the most heartfelt.
13) Cissy Houston's singing voice
Among the big names tapped to help with the music for The Wiz, Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston's mother, also lent her voice. As part of The Wiz Singers Adult Choir, she helped round out the film's sound. Like a lot of the musical greats listed in this article, she also went uncredited, but it's crucial for us to note their contributions to a part of Black history.
14) A young Robin Givens makes her start
If you look closely at the guests in Aunt Em's house, you can see a little Robin Givens. Givens went uncredited in the role, but it's fun to see how the actress's early start coincided with one of Hollywood's most legendary films.
15) The Wiz as the beginning of Michael Jackson's short film career
Jackson's turn as the Scarecrow was his first big screen role. This led the singer toward other film projects, such as Captain EO and Moonwalker. Even his adventurous music videos for Thriller, Smooth Criminal and Remember the Time showcase his interest in cinematic storytelling.
16) The culmination of Diana Ross' acting career in the 1970s
The Wiz was the last big-screen role Ross had as an actress on camera. Before The Wiz, she'd made a name for herself in Lady Sings the Blues and Mahogany. She campaigned for her role in The Wiz, which proved to be one of her most memorable. However, Ross provided her voice to The Land Before Time in an uncredited role and starred in two TV films in the '90s (most memorably Double Platinum where she played Brandy's long-lost mother) before leaving film altogether.
17) Status as a cult classic despite being a financial flop at the time
When The Wiz was released, it wasn't a big success; it was a financial failure. But since then, it's become a beloved classic. Why? The star quality of Ross and Jackson help. But it might also be because of stark reality in entertainment; Hollywood has yet to invest fully in fantasy films starring Black casts. The Wiz is unique in that despite the prejudice of the Hollywood system, it was able to make it to the big screen still.
18) The Wiz as an award-winning movie
Even though the film wasn't a financial success in 1978, it still garnered several nominations, including four from the Academy Awards with Jones earning a nomination for Best Song Score or Adaptation Score. The film also won the 1979 NAACP Image Award. Jackson won the organization's award for Oustanding Actor in a Motion Picture.
19) The Emerald City
The most iconic setpiece from The Wiz is the Emerald City, which updates the Emerald City showcased in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz to a posh, Studio 54-laced fantasy of Times Square. The scene encapsulates the magic of The Wiz; music, dance and gorgeous cinematography came together to create an awe-inspiring experience. And having Jones in a gold-tinged cameo doesn't hurt, either.
20) New York fashion on display
The Emerald City scene stands out because of the music and dancing; another reason is fashion. Disco fashion is at the center of the scene, with designs from Norma Kamali and Oscar de la Renta taking center stage.
21) Sly commentary about 1970s New York
It's clear that The Wiz is saying something about New York in the 1970s. Back in the day, New York wasn't the glitzy place it's become in our current collective conscience. From Lion's place of residence being the New York Public Library and the Emerald City portraying a fantastical version of the World Trade Center Plaza, The Wiz is an ode to the Big Apple. Even though the city still had inherent magic and artistry, best shown during "The Emerald City" sequence, the layer of grime and fear in the film comments on New York's level of corruption, inequality and injustice.
22) The gritty set/prop design
While The Wizard of Oz is much brighter concerning its set and prop design, The Wiz decided to take a much different route with its telling of the story. Instead of making everything removed from reality, The Wiz chose to play with grime and subtle realism as a way to anchor the story in the present day. Oz might be a far off place, but it's not that dissimilar from another fantastical land we all know--New York.
23) Undercover horror elements
Even though The Wiz is supposed to be a fun fantasy, it's surprisingly scary. Whether it's in the form of concrete monsters or walking cameras, the gritty designs of the anthropomorphic creatures add a certain level of fright. You can't watch The Wiz and not be afraid of when Dorothy and the gang are cornered by some of these creatures in the parking deck on the way to The Wiz.
24) Stan Winston's special effects makeup work
Award-winning makeup artist Stan Winston has worked on many of Hollywood's biggest films, including Edward Scissorhands, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles, Galaxy Quest, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Iron Man and Avatar. But one of his earliest jobs was providing special effects makeup for The Wiz, giving us the iconic looks from the film we know today.
25) The Poppies
The Poppies only show themselves for a short scene in The Wiz, but they still manage to capture the imagination. First, there's the fact that they are positioned as magical prostitutes in a family film. Second, their fashion exemplifies the grooviest aesthetics of 1970s street fashion. Third, their theme music is one of the funkiest pieces of music in the film, adding an extra layer of cool to them.
26) The Wiz's influence in pop culture
The Wiz was a flop at the time it was released in theaters. But it has since become a cult classic, artistically informing its future generations. Some of that influence can be seen in today's pop culture. Missy Elliot has referenced The Wiz in her music, and Lil Kim also indirectly references The Emerald City in her "Crush On You" video by utilizing color-coded looks. Also, Mills became a highly successful R&B star after her time with the original stage production.
27) "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" as an anthem for 2018
Evillene might be a villain, but her song "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News" is one we can all identify with, especially in these trying times. With horrible news affecting us every minute of the day thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and social media, we all want some peace in our lives. Sometimes, you want to shout to the world for it to leave its bad news at the door. We feel you, Evillene.
28) A much-needed break from Blaxploitation
Before The Wiz came out, Hollywood was knee-deep in the blaxploitation movement. Even though the movement put Black faces onscreen, it also limited the mainstream imagination as to what Black casts could do. The Wiz still has some blaxploitation elements, given how gritty and "urban" the set design is. But overall, the film elevated Black cinema and showed how a movie with an all-Black cast didn't need to be mired in crime and drug use. Black actors and actresses could tell all kinds of stories, including a fantasy based on a beloved classic book.
29) The Wiz and Afrofuturism
Afrofuturism shows itself in undercover ways in The Wiz. Yes, the obvious is that it's a fantasy, and the imagery in the film would not be out of place on Parliament Funkadelic's album covers. But the core tenet of Afrofuturism is the ability to see a boundless future for the African diaspora, free of racial and political constraints. The Wiz fully embodies that by giving us a story of Black characters who overcome themselves and their surroundings to break free and achieve more than they ever imagined they could.
30) The Wiz as a part of shared African American history
Pop culture is intertwined in African American history; films like Coming to America and Roots have become part of our connective tissue. The Wiz is the same. It's a movie we as a people have connected to because of its celebration of African American culture, and for that reason, it remains an integral part of our cultural socialization.
31) Portraying diverse take on The Wizard of Oz
Today, "racebending" isn't anything new. But The Wiz helped start the trend before it became cool today. Similar to the 1975 all-Black theatrical production of Hello, Dolly! starring Pearl Bailey, The Wiz captured the imagination by changing the perception of Blackness in entertainment. The Wiz is one of those rare films that portrays Blackness without pornographic racial trauma. Instead, The Wiz showcases the universality of The Wizard of Oz; it doesn't have to be a white cast for the story to still resonate with audiences.
32) Positive Black women role models for girls
A lot can be said about Diana Ross taking the role of Dorothy from Mills, who originated the role on Broadway. But disregarding any drama there might have been, the character of Dorothy officially became a new role model for little Black girls who were hoping to see themselves onscreen. Seeing Dorothy overcome her challenges and grow into a liberated person sparked something powerful within girls who wanted to believe in themselves, too.
33) The Wiz as a Thanksgiving tradition
Do you usually watch The Wiz around Thanksgiving? If so, you're not alone; often, The Wiz is shown around family-oriented holidays, typically Thanksgiving. So just as many families return home to be together, it's a tradition to sit around the TV and watch Dorothy's journey back home.
34) The Wiz as a showcase of Motown's power in the '70s
One of the selling points of The Wiz is the power of Motown. Ross and Jackson were two of the biggest stars at the time of the film's release. Their star power alone, plus Jones' score, would make anyone want to buy a ticket.
35) The lasting power of "Home"
"Home" is one of those songs that has become a musical standard. Its timeless quality comes from the fact that it's so relatable. We've all had moments where we realized that home doesn't have to be a place; it is when you are at peace with yourself. The song has also helped propel several careers; first, there's Mills, who originally sang the song on stage and re-released it as a radio-friendly version in the 1980s. Then there's Ross, who brought it to the screen in The Wiz. And finally, there's Whitney Houston's version of "Home," which she sang as her introduction to the world in 1983 on The Merv Griffin Show. "Home" will remain one of those songs that never gets old, no matter how many times you hear it.
36) The Wiz as the beginning of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson's musical collaborations
Some of Jackson's most celebrated albums from the late '70s and '80s, Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad, stemmed from his collaboration with Jones. This relationship wouldn't have been forged if it wasn't for The Wiz. Jones came to respect Jackson after working on the film with him. This friendship led to the classic albums we now love today.
37) The Wiz as a capsule of the last years of disco
Some of The Wiz's soundtrack has disco leanings, and this is important for more than just the film being a product of the '70s. Just as the film marked the end of the blaxploitation era, it also indirectly marked the end of the disco era. Around 1978, new forms of music such as new wave and punk started becoming more popular. And, in 1979, the famous death of disco happened during "Disco Demolition Night" at Comisky Park in Chicago, when irate rock fans burned disco records in supposed retaliation to the oversaturation of disco in pop culture.
38) A time capsule of legendary performances
As time goes on, The Wiz becomes more of a reminder of how many greats we have lost over the years. Out of the entire main cast, Ross is the only one still living. The adage of giving our legends their flowers while they're still here rings true.
39) The Wiz as a dancer's movie
For as much as The Wiz is hailed for its music, it's also notable as a dancers' film. Amazingly, 650 dancers were employed for the film, and it's these dancers who help boost the film into the stratosphere of cult classics. Of course, "Emerald City" is one of the best instances the dancers get to show off, but "Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day" also provides audiences a look at the dancers' immense talent.
40. The Wiz lives on in NBC reproduction
The magic of The Wiz continues today in the form of NBC's stellar live musical production The Wiz, Live! Starring Shanice Williams, Amber Riley, Queen Latifah, Uzo Aduba, David Allan Grier, Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelly, Mary J. Blige and Mills, the production recaptured the magic of both the stage musical and the film for new generations.
What do you love about The Wiz?