"Success... Fame and fortune... They're all illusions..."
Like many people, I responded to the death of Michael Jackson by turning to his art: I decided finally to watch "The Wiz," the 1978 movie musical that was one of the more notorious critical and commercial flops of its era, an urbanized "Wizard of Oz" adaptation with an over-aged Diana Ross as a wan and neurotic Dorothy and the pre-"King of Pop" Jackson as the sprightly, lovable Scarecrow. The movie is stubbornly unjoyous and even (intentionally) creepy at times, but it contains a few grace notes and fraught moments.
The italicized words quoted above seem particularly meaningful in the wake of Jackson's death Thursday (June 25) at the age of 50. They are spoken by Jackson's Scarecrow near the end of the film, and one can't help but wonder if the lonely and embattled pop star ever thought of them during his many years of near-seclusion at his Neverland Valley Ranch, named with tragic irony for the magical land where little boys never grow up. (The Scarecrow's only solo song, "You Can't Win," also seems sadly prophetic, as Jackson croons: "You can't win/ You can't break even/ And you can't get out of the game... / You get in/ Way over your head/ And you've only got yourself to blame...")
Universal Studios Home Entertainment reissued "The Wiz" a year ago on DVD in a "30th Anniversary Edition" with a bonus soundtrack CD. The disc had been sitting on my non-urgent "movies I kind of want to watch" stack ever since, but it took Jackson's death to galvanize me into actually sticking the thing into my DVD player.
"The Wiz" reminds us that the post-Jackson 5, pre-Thriller Jackson was a big but not huge star. Diana Ross receives top billing, above the title; Jackson is second-billed, below the title. His name appears onscreen just before that of Nipsey Russell, who steals every scene as the Tinman.
"The Wiz" reportedly cost $24 million, making it the most expensive film musical ever made up to that time. It earned only $13.5 million at the box office but had no trouble earning the enmity of critics, who compared it unfavorably to the original 1975 Broadway production, written by Charlie Smalls and William F. Brown, which earned seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The movie's failure effectively killed Ross' film career and the theatrical aspirations of Motown Productions. (The company pretty much stuck to cheap made-for-TV programs after this.) Jackson also never had another significant movie role, although he hardly was missed on the big screen: His famous and ubiquitous 1980s music videos were not just groundbreaking but cinematic.
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