The cast of "The Wiz" (L-R Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Diana Ross and Ted Ross) pose for a public shot in 1978 in new York, brand-new York.

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prior to there was NBC’s The Wiz Live!, certification Queen Latifah, mar J. Blige, David Alan Grier and Stephanie Mills, there to be The Wiz, a 1978 movie based on the musical of the exact same name.

This earlier production that The Wiz might have to be so lot better. It had actually a an excellent concept (an African-American take it on “The wizard of Oz” in which the characters don’t monitor the yellow brick road, they ease on under it), a strong director (Sidney Lumet, who’d simply done Dog job Afternoon and Network) and also a solid cast (Diana Ross together Dorothy, Richard Pryor together the Wiz, Nipsey Russell together the believe Man). And also it had actually Michael Jackson, a year before he would start his solo career with immortal dance access dearteassociazione.org such as “Don’t prevent ‘Til You obtain Enough” and “Off the Wall.” yet The Wiz was most vital for what taken place behind the scenes—veteran producer Quincy Jones, Lumet’s longdearteassociazione.org film-score colleague, to be musical director, and also he met his future “Thriller” collaborator MJ by correctly pronouncing “Socrates” to the young singer top top set. Later, Jones referred to as his brand-new friend and also listened intently together MJ defined he might hear totally formed songs in his head and also needed who to aid write them down.


The Wiz came along at a perfect dearteassociazione.org because that Berry Gordy and also Motown Records. To complete Lady Sings the Blues, Gordy had to sink in $2 million the his own money since Paramount’s optimal executive, frank Yablans, had actually told him the best a studio can spend ~ above a black film at the moment was $500,000. “This is no a black film,” Gordy repair him. “This is a film with black stars.” There were clashes top top the set, as star Diana Ross made her change from music diva come Hollywood diva, demanding an upgrade of her period-piece wardrobe. Yet the 1972 drama to be a success in the end, drawing five Oscar nominations, although Ross lost ideal Actress to Liza Minnelli that Cabaret.

In 1977, Motown to buy the legal rights to The Wiz, a script based upon a Broadway hit with African-American stars placing their own spin top top The sorcerer’s of Oz. Gordy and also producer plunder Cohen cast Ross, climate 33, as Dorothy. The director that signed on, after a number of false starts, to be Sidney Lumet, who had collaborated v a young Al Pacino top top Dog day Afternoon and Serpico. In ~ 53, Lumet to be an old Hollywood hand v fast-talking charisma, ending sentences with “darling sweetheart.” To give The Wiz an orchestral punch, Lumet sought the end an old girlfriend to inquiry a favor.

He called Quincy Jones.

Q didn’t desire to execute it. Jones liked only three song from the Broadway show—“Home,” “Brand new Day,” and a funky ensemble number dubbed “Ease On down the Road.” however he feeling indebted to Lumet, who’d rental him for plenty of film scores in the past. “I felt i owed him much more than one,” Jones said of Lumet. “I owed him a lot.”

Lumet stocked The Wiz with top-tier African-American talent—Ross, Richard Pryor, Lena Horne. Rob Cohen, head that Motown Productions, believed Michael Jackson would certainly be perfect for the duty of the Scarecrow, and he approached Gordy v the idea. Come his surprise,

Gordy agreed. “Aw, Michael’s great,” stated the Motown chief not far removed from years of litigation v the Jacksons end contracts. “Michael’s a star.”


Lumet to be harder come convince. He wanted Jimmie “J. J.” Walker, star that TV’s Good dearteassociazione.orgs. “Michael Jackson’s a vegas act. The Jackson 5’s a las vegas act,” the manager told Cohen. Quincy Jones was unconvinced of Jackson, too, however Cohen arranged a meeting, paris 19-year-old MJ to new York. Finally, Lumet and also Jones observed the attributes that Cohen saw. “That boy is therefore sweet! He’s for this reason pure!” Lumet exulted. “I desire him together the Scarecrow.”

The final barrier was Joe Jackson, that wasn’t thrilled about Michael law a project that separated self financially indigenous the remainder of his siblings. Cohen mollified Joe through offering roughly $100,000 for Michael to play the Scarecrow. When The Wiz began filming in brand-new York, the 27-year-old producer relocated Michael and La Toya right into a Manhattan apartment, and Michael was on his own for the very first dearteassociazione.org. He live a normal life, except for a strange habit Cohen taken place to discover—taking baths in Perrier water.

The shoots were long and also grueling, lasting every day under the people Trade facility towers. At night, the young actors went the end to beat in new York City. Cohen take it Michael, together with other members of the cast, to Studio 54, the disco warm spot known for both that crazy sexual escapades and celebrity regulars like Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, wear Grant, and Brooke Shields. The rest of the society took notification whenever Michael Jackson danced. “The gay side the the dance floor would stop,” Cohen says, “and the hetero side would stop.”

During lunch on The Wiz set, Lumet, the director, called an oblivious Michael that women about him to be “like ricocheting bullets everywhere the place.”

On the set, Michael took incredibly seriously his choreography sessions v Louis Johnson, who’d to be a pioneering African-American ballet dancer end years of punishing Hollywood racism. In the film, Michael’s many impressive actions are with Diana Ross, as he clumsily learns to walk after gift imprisoned by crows ~ above his scarecrow pole. In huge clown shoes, he stumbles, rolls on the ground, and knocks out his knees. “He had seen Charlie Chaplin. He was a an excellent fan of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly,” claims Johnson, that is in his beforehand eighties, through phone indigenous his new York home. “So i let him usage it … he asked me, ‘Could I carry out this?’—and then magnified it.” Jackson’s Scarecrow costume to be hot and cumbersome, v a vast curly wig, a hat and vest stuffed v scraps that newspaper, not to cite a painted-on nose. Tony Walton, the film’s production and costume designer, didn’t know Michael to be tormented by his brothers’ constant teasing—they referred to as him “Ugly” and “Big Nose.” “He was thrilled to have his sleep covered,” Walton says. His costume, stuffed through newspaper and also bits that trash bags, was much more cumbersome, however Jackson made the work.


Quincy Jones was always present. (In the film, Jones shows up dressed in gold, play a huge piano in dearteassociazione.org Square.) He, too, started to pay fist to Jackson. As soon as it came dearteassociazione.org because that the Scarecrow part, Michael stepped come the microphone and also began to sing, no the bright-sounding Michael Jackson that “I want You Back” however the 18-year-old MJ who voice had developed into something as smooth and powerful as the Concorde. Cohen, the producer, i found it Jones gaping. “He looked in ~ Michael the way a jaguar looks at a goat,” Cohen says. “It to be like, ‘I desire him.’ ”

Jones made his move on the set. At one point, he took Michael next to define a Scarecrow bit in the script—that the Greek philosopher’s name is pronounced “Sock-ra-tees” and also not “Sow-cray-tees.” as Jones would certainly tell the story, the asked Michael right then if he can “take a shot” at producing his next solo album. That stuck to Michael. During The Wiz post-production, he dubbed Quincy unexpectedly during a rare residence hiatus native touring. They were on the line because that 45 minutes, the experienced producer doing most of the talking, around studio equipment, Star Wars, the newest synthesizer models, and unfinished Wiz clips he’d seen. Michael greatly listened, through “mmm-hmms” and an somedearteassociazione.orgs “whoo!” when Quincy enthusiastically mentioned he’d checked out the roll Stones perform, Michael sniffed, “You understand it’s not talent, though.” The crucial moment in this nascent partnership came when Michael stated he’d been writing songs: “I hear something in mine head. Ns make the sounds with my mouth—I deserve to do that.” Quincy ended up being excited. “There’s an instrument that deserve to make the sounds you want. I can write anything under on paper,” the veteran arranger said. “If you can hear it, I have the right to write that down.” The exchange, i beg your pardon MJ recorded, ends with Quincy requesting his number.

The Wiz cost $22 million and also did not perform well at package office. It to be a spectacular, fault experiment. Michael and Diana have wonderful chemistry, however Ross is mismatched for the part. Not because she’s too old (although she is), but since she plays Dorothy the same means she played billie Holiday, with an emaciated world-weariness, once the part, together Judy Garland had shown the world forty years earlier, dubbed for a wide-eyed, childish wonder. A less obvious problem was that during filming, Lumet’s mam at the dearteassociazione.org, Gail Jones, daughter of Wiz star Lena Horne, had approached the director on collection and asked because that a divorce. The typically exuberant Lumet became despondent—a high quality that come out distinctively in the film, recalls production designer Tony Walton. “Everybody has actually a crying jag—the Lion cries, and Diana Ross and the believe Man,” the says. “None of i beg your pardon was really in the script.”


The Wiz has that is dearteassociazione.orgless qualities, especially the lovingly rendered scenes to Lumet’s home city, prominently showing landmarks such as Coney Island, Shea Stadium, and the Brooklyn Bridge. But its reception was marred by racism backlash. Theatre chains in white neighborhoods wouldn’t schedule The Wiz for are afraid of scaring off white regulars, producer

Cohen recalls glumly. “As big and as spectacular and also as musical as it was,” that says, “we never obtained a genuine solid distribution.” black films, aside from Shaft, were for black audiences. White movies were for white audiences. Just as black color music, despite quick exceptions such together Motown and disco, had been for black color radio stations and also white music for white radio stations.

Somebody required to resolve this problem.

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This has actually been adapted from Steve Knopper’s MJ: The Genius that Michael Jackson (Scribner).