Spotlight 1978: The Musicals

Eduardo Gutierrez on The Wiz and Grease. This entry is part of Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.

For my first assignment/collaboration on this otherwise respectable blog, I have been asked to give my opinion on two emblematic musicals of 1978: The Wiz and Grease. I have very little experience with films, other than loving them, loving talking about them, and, occasionally, analyzing and dissecting them to my heart’s content. I watch as many as I can, and I’ve been lucky enough to have lived surrounded by movie buffs. But enough about me, let’s get down to Wiz-ness (see what I did there? Yeah, I hate me too).

THE WIZ

Wow, that was quite a watch. A wonderful cast, with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Quincy Jones writing the music, choreography, the (usually) amazing Sidney Lumet in the director’s chair, and the famous Joel Schumacher writing the screenplay.

A bit of history: on the stage version of The Wiz, Dorothy, a 14 year old girl  relived the well known story of the L. Frank Baum book with an African-American (you know, black) community twist. It was a success.  So much so that they decided to make a movie, ideally casting the same Broadway actress (Stephanie Mills, who was 21 at that time). However, Diana Ross really wanted that role. They told her she was 34 and didn’t look 14 at all, she said Dorothy was ageless; they said she had no experience; she said she could bring Michael Jackson to play the role of the Scarecrow… Long story short, she got her way. But the whole string-pulling didn’t end there. Sidney Lumet was asked to direct because he had a reputation for finishing movies in time and within budget. He cast his mother-in-law, the only white character in the movie, as an extremely creepy looking Glinda the Good. Joel Schumacher pulled strings in the fashion world to get the costumes for the way-too-long dancing scene at the Emerald City.

Glinda (The Wizard of Oz) vs Glinda (The Wiz)

To be honest, not even the music is good in this movie. Except for a couple of songs, the rest of the musical numbers are forgettable and, sorry Quincy, even poorly mixed. Some songs didn’t even make sense within the story. If it weren’t for Michael Jackson, whose talent couldn’t be contained by the awful setting, most songs would have been indigestible. Mr. Jones also choreographed a bit of the movie, proving with this that sometimes an artist should stick with what he knows.

The characters and their development (if any) are plainly ridiculous; the Tin Man doesn’t have a heart, and cries about it right away. Dorothy doesn’t seem to change at all and feels quite insubstantial throughout the movie, save for the last song, which is actually one of the few decent contributions of this film.

Other redeeming factors:

1. The subway scene was tripping balls. The red humanoid IKEA lamps chasing the group and the pillars stumble to trap Ms. Ross while everybody asks the lion for help, when he just told everybody a minute ago that he has no courage was very amusing in a “it’s so bad it’s good” sort of way.

2. The special effects were… special.

3. The movie is so bad, it’s kind of hilarious.

The Wiz is just an amalgamation of talent that has been put to the wrong use; Quincy Jones might be a genius, Joel Schumacher might be a cult director, and Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and the rest of the cast might be great artists in their own right, but they certainly are NOT musical theater/movie savvy talent. It was poorly told, the music wasn’t supporting the story, and the story had been twisted too much to be any good. It was too dark, too unrelatable, too bland. And the music wasn’t good enough to carry the film forward.

The original Dorothy was a little girl away from home, in a mystical place, lost and marveling at the wonders of a world she had not had the chance to see. Diana Ross is a 24-year old pre-school teacher who refuses to change and is thrown into a not-so magical place, not so different from the world she didn’t want to know in the first place. How does anybody relate to that? I guess if the story is told well enough and the visuals are wonderful and the dance numbers shine and sparkle in front of your eyes, you could, at least, be entertained. But that is not the case; it seems like this movie, however precious the ingredients, has not been cooked properly.

On a scale from 0 to 10, I would give it a 4 – because Michael Jackson is awesome. And if you really, really, really, REALLY want to have fun with the movie, you might.

GREASE 

Before I begin, I must say I am partial to high school movies. I just like them and I don’t feel I need to explain why, so please bear with me for the next section.

Grease’s cast is fantastic; Travolta is (almost) always cool, and Olivia Newton-John is perfect for the role, sweet and innocent. Stockard Channing is feisty and… wait, is that Lorenzo Lamas? Anyway, they’re all so well cast, one forgets they look like thirty-somethings in high school. The songs are consistently good and catchy, and they are there for a reason, be it telling the story, or offering a bit of character introspection. Everything from the 1950s setting to the dancing, the choreography, and the performances has been beautifully done in this movie.

You can tell this was a musical way before it became a film; any possible rough edges to the storytelling or the songs, the dialog or the musical numbers, the timing, the scenes… had already been corrected before the movie was shot.

Now, one thing one cannot dispute about Grease it’s that it is most definitely cheesy. There’s not a lot of social critique, and the movie even takes otherwise important topics very lightly (contraception, teenage pregnancy, death-defying illegal racing…) but other than that, it manages to engage the viewer with kind, lighthearted ingenuity. Truth be told, this might have been a way of keeping the 1970s ultra conservative movie censorship out of their way. A scene that was documented to have been cut was a fight scene that, according to a crew member, looked “like something Martin Scorsese might have directed”. They also cut some rubbing-while-dancing here and there (although Stockard Channing’s hickeys were real, so who knows what happened behind the cameras).

It is possible to dislike Grease for its lack of depth in the plot and most of the characters, the ridiculously predictable outcome of every single detail and the naiveté of the entire thing (Frankie Avalon singing a song about going back to high school?). But Grease is not a pretentious movie; it’s not trying to draw the audience with the content of its book, but with the way the story is told. And at that, they have done a very, very good job.

Grease wins not only because 80% of the songs are already embedded in our collective minds, but because it’s engaging and fun, it’s… plainly said, a good, lighthearted musical.

It’s what it is; what it always was meant to be, and maybe that consistency, that coherence manages to deliver a better end product. The movie is very enjoyable; albeit shallow, it’s extremely entertaining. On a scale from 0 to 10, I give it a hug. It’s no wonder why it became the highest grossing movie of that year and, for some time, the third highest ever (after Star Wars: Episode IV and Jaws).

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