Whip and nae nae, compassion and inclusion. A beautifully revitalized The Wiz (Live!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve always been an Oz-nut for as long as I can remember. Oh, the annual viewings of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz every holiday season (pre-VCR/DVD/YouTube era, you got one shot, once a year!). I read the books backwards and forwards and mentally catalogued all the fantastic creatures, political intrigue, and oddball illustrations. (“Dorothy Gale” was my “Harry Potter.”) Occasionally, I would delve into other adjacent fantasy lands like Narnia or Wonderland when I needed to cleanse my palate. I devoured any and all minutiae about what motivated L. Frank Baum to write the series (hint: he was pretty irritated with scandal-ridden American politics … go figure).

Championing Gregory Maguire’s postmodern, animal-rights-skewing reimagining of the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I eventually viewed that recent stage musical adaptation twice (though I think it misses the mark when it comes to Maguire’s prescient political allegory). I obsessed over all the trivia I could find on the various cinematic and stage and television journeys over the rainbow and across the Yellow Brick Road. I even love The Boy from Oz – apropos of nothing.

Oh, did I collect STUFF! Stuff upon stuff always competing for space with my ever-growing piles of Star Wars and comic book ephemera as well. Oz has generated mountains of merchandise in the past 100+ years: toys, dolls, figurines, posters, and, yes, those ubiquitous-in-the-1980s Franklin Mint plates. I have a couple of those hand-painted platters (thanks to my gracious parents) … but where and what was the “Franklin Mint” exactly? Does anyone really know? Was it just in some dude’s basement and his name was Franklin?

However, if pressed to pick one corner of Oz-mania that is my absolute fave, the moment that cemented my fascination with the various permutations of this quintessentially American fantasy series? That would be The Wiz, and particularly the 1978 Sidney Lumet-directed film version starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne. It’s a polarizing entry point to be sure. While the stage version of Charlie Smalls’ musical was a huge and historic Tony-winning hit in the early 70s, the film was a colossal bomb, vilified for the liberties it took with the source material, and there was a bit of ageist/sexist foolishness over Lumet casting then 33-year-old Diana Ross as Dorothy. (“Too old,” the people cried! I’d love to be 33 again …)

I wrote at length on The Wiz in an embarrassingly fawning love letter in my first book (not humble-bragging – just telling you where you can find it). The movie isn’t without its flaws – too long, kinda dreary, covered in the depressing pseudo-sexual grime that seemed to permeate films of the “Me Decade.” Yet, I would argue that it is the very moodiness of the film, coupled with a Quincy Jones-produced funk bottle-rocket of a score, that gets closest to the populism with which L. Frank Baum approached his work. In that sense, one might suggest that The Wiz movie, remembered chiefly as an unmitigated pop culture misstep, was actually the purest distillation of the grim essence at the original novel’s core.

However, nobody but me likes the nearly forty-year-old flick, so it was high time for a multimedia teardown and rebuild of The Wiz. I’m happy to state that NBC’s live televised holiday musical (from Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who brought us the turgid Peter Pan Live! and the better-but-still-sort-of-moribund Sound of Music Live!) did a fine job reestablishing The Wiz for a new generation.

Director Kenny Leon, aided and abetted by choreographer Fatima Robinson and script doctor Harvey Fierstein, wisely approached the work not as sacred text but as an opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration. Some of the updates worked beautifully, particularly the orchestrations which, originally (film and stage), were very much “of the moment” (dated R&B, disco) so a refresh was not only in order but essential. Other tweaks fell flat (iPads, sushi, referring to the silver slippers as “kicks”) – a good rule of thumb? If it’s going to sound corny five years from now, chances are it already sounds corny now.

The smartest thing the production team did was cherry pick from both the stage and film scores. Quincy Jones, when he was working on the film, saw that Smalls’ score, even then, needed an overhaul, notably the Scarecrow’s signature tune: the percolating and devastating “You Can’t Win” – foreshadowing Jones’ future blockbuster collaborations with Michael Jackson on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad – replaced the stage production’s aimless “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday.” Happily, in this latest production “You Can’t Win” won out, and the Elijah Kelley’s adorably nimble performance as the Scarecrow benefited.

Robinson’s choreography cleverly incorporated many au courant moves but in subtle fashion. Oz has always been a cracked mirror reflection of American society, so moves like “whip” and “nae nae” – not to mention some seriously fierce Emerald City voguing – spicing up Ozzians’ onstage pogoing was smart and fun.

The cast was perfection throughout. Newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy married a steamroller voice with righteous fire that was fun to see. Finale “Home” was a knockout. She seemed a bit lost in the quieter, softer moments of the show, but those skills will come with experience. For a broadcast theatrical debut, she ran rings around Peter Pan Live’s Allison Williams, though admittedly that bar was so low that it sits in a sub-basement somewhere next to Brian Williams’ career.

Queen Latifah gave as good as she got as a gender-defying Wiz. Vocally, she wasn’t quite up to the role, but from sheer presence? There was no taking that stage away from her.

Intentional or not (and I suspect intentional with Leon’s and Fierstein’s involvement), there was an interesting statement in having the traditionally male role of The Wiz played by the indomitable Latifah. In the guise of the strutting, swaggering Wiz, everyone called Latifah “sir,” until it was revealed that The Wiz was not actually a he but a she. When Dorothy’s scruffy companions exclaimed their horror, Dorothy wheeled on them, exclaiming, “There is nothing wrong with being a woman,” and then spun back to The Wiz and chastising, “But there is everything wrong with being a liar.”

I don’t know what to make of the moment, but, in its narrative context of self-actualization and self-discovery and self-worth, it offers an interesting commentary on the relevance/irrelevance of gender, the importance of humanity and honesty, and the authentic roles women can and do play in leadership and in the accountability of others. I dug it.

In this reboot, women ruled Oz. Not just Dorothy and The Wiz, but Mary J. Blige’s Evillene was a pip. She frolicked dangerously close to the land of overacting, but it’s to be expected from a role that, while serving the primary narrative impetus (“kill the witch”), only has about 10 minutes of actual stage time. Her number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is a highlight in the score, and the gospel rave-up that Blige delivered did it proud. Blige running around in a half-hoop skirt and stiletto boots that looked like they could serve double duty as murder weapons only added to the, er, fun. And, in one of the few actual LOL moments of the evening for me, Blige had an Abott-and-Costello-esque word battle with a lackey that sparkled with perfect comic timing.

Uzo Aduba’s Glinda had even less stage time than Blige but an even better song in the gorgeous, hauntingly inspirational “Believe in Yourself.” I’m sorry, Aduba, but no one can touch the incomparable Lena Horne in my mind for her soaring, effortlessly fierce performance of that number in the film, but you made it your own. The sweetly schoolmarm-ish way Aduba (Orange is the New Black) approached the role was distinctive and effective, even if her dress looked as though it were made of a million fuzzy, glowing yellow pipe cleaners.

Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original stage production, was a thoughtful addition as Aunt Em, establishing the show’s central thesis in fine fashion with opening ballad “The Feeling We Once Had,” an undulating gut punch of a song, simultaneously channeling the remorse for life lost and hope for life yet to live. Glee’s Amber Riley nailed the playground chant whimsy of “He’s the Wiz,” barreling through the number like her life depended on it. Her acting and enunciation could still use a bit of work, but her powerhouse voice made up for those flaws.

If the show’s authority and presence came from the women in the cast, the zip and the play came from the men. David Alan Grier’s Lion had the most fully realized performance of the night – not a beat was lost, not a note was missed. The show was fully alive whenever he was onscreen; he kept things moving at a clip (which was a blessing given half the three-hour running time was made up of commercials … though, happily, that creepy Walmart family was MIA this year); and any consistent comedy in the production came from him. Elijah Kelley (Hairspray) was an adorable wee dervish as the kind-hearted Scarecrow, and pop star Ne-Yo was all country-fried charm and deep feeling soul as the Tin Man. His “What Can I Feel” was a tear-jerking marvel.

From classics like “Ease on Down the Road” to the jubilant (and timely) “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day,” the cast of The Wiz Live! performed the showstoppers with vital urgency, as declarations that life can be better – should be better – and that it takes all of us, with the right sense of compassion and of adventure, to get there. I think L. Frank Baum would have been proud. I know I was.

Little Roy

Little Roy

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

…but movies transport me

Spider-Roy

Spider-Roy

Nina Kaur (thanks to fellow Farmington Player Amy Lauter for connecting us!) asked me to contribute a guest blog entry to her fun and interesting blog Thirty Something Years in Ninaland. Here’s what she wrote about me – “Every Monday I will have a guest blogger. Today I am featuring a wonderful Movie Reviewer named Roy Sexton. He is witty, charming and great critic! Enjoy reading about his journey!” Wow! Thanks, Nina! Click here for the original post on her blog.

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By yours truly …

Movies have always been an important part of my life.

I like to read books (more accurately comic books these days, as I seem to now have the attention span of a tsetse fly), and I adore music. Television is fine, and I’ve spent many hours traipsing the boards of theatres across the Midwest. But movies transport me.

I love the fact that a film is an encapsulated medium. Whether 90 minutes or three hours, a movie tells one story – beginning, middle, and end – introducing you to new friends and enemies and locales in an efficiently designed delivery mechanism. With a good film, you get the experience of reading a novel (whether or not the film is in fact based on any work of literature) in a highly compressed fashion.

Nina Kaur

Nina Kaur

Your brain leaves your body for a bit, you take a mini-vacation to places you might not otherwise ever see, and you return to your regularly scheduled life a bit changed, perhaps enlightened, and hopefully re-energized.

I stop reading email, answering calls, or monitoring social media…and just blessedly check out…for a bit.

My parents cultivated appreciation for the arts by filling our home with movies and music and books and love. I’ve groused in the past about wanting, as a child, to play with my Star Wars action figures in the solitude of my toy-lined room and being forced instead to sit in our den with my parents and watch some creaky B&W classic movie on Fort Wayne’s Channel 55. And I am so grateful now for that.

My appreciation for classic cinema resulted from these years basking in the glow of our old RCA color TV. And when we could finally afford a VCR and could now watch any movie of our choosing, I was already hooked on the story-telling of vintage movies with their requisite arch wit, dramatic stakes, whimsical joys, and belief that anything was possible.

However, not everything was high art in our house. The advent of HBO in the early 80s and its repetitive showings of whatever junk Hollywood had most recently cranked out shaped my tastes for better or worse as well. I’m a sucker for the movie train wreck – the more star-studded, over-budget, under-written, and garish the better. Some of my most beloved films are among the most notoriously awful of all time: Xanadu, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Wiz, Popeye, Flash Gordon. The Black Hole, Raggedy Ann and Andy’s Musical Adventure, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Return to Oz, Battle Beyond the Stars, Krull, The Neverending Story, and so on.

If it was a flop and it was shown ad nauseum one mid-afternoon following another on HBO in the 1980s, then I fell in love with it. Like self-imposed water torture on my nascent aesthetic.

As time went by and I stomped through my high school and college know-it-all years (some might argue I’m still stuck in them), I learned from both my parents and some wonderful teachers the tools of critique and criticism. What is the intent of the piece? What is the context for its creation? How effective is its structure, composition, impact? Where did it go awry or where did it cross over into something classic?

It’s all highly subjective and a bit arrogant, I suppose, but I can’t help it. I’m entertained by the act of analysis.

In more recent years, Facebook gave me an outlet to connect with my inner-Ebert. I started posting status statements summarizing in glib, condensed fashion my take on whatever flick we had just enjoyed … or endured. My kind-hearted and patient partner John has suffered through a lot of movies over the years, many he enjoyed … and even more he did not.

Jim and Lyn's Wedding

At wonderful Jim and Lyn’s beautiful wedding

We still bicker about his departure from Moulin Rouge after twenty minutes with nary an explanation. I found him after the movie in the lobby reading a newspaper – I don’t know what is more telling: that he was too kind to want to ruin the movie for me by alerting me how much he hated it, or the fact that I stayed to the end without checking on his safety and security!

My friends and colleagues enjoyed these little “squibs” I posted on social media. I suppose I was aspiring to capture the grace and insight of Leonard Maltin’s “micro reviews” that I consumed voraciously as a child every January when we bought his latest edition. (The paper on those early volumes was always of some strange newspaper-esque stock prone to smudging and was pulpily aromatic. I will never forget that musty, fabulous smell.)

John always asks plaintively, “Didn’t they know this movie was bad when they were making it?!”

Perhaps I keep trying to solve that riddle, with the false confidence that my $10 movie ticket entitles me to a shot at armchair quarterbacking. Perhaps the failed actor in me is still trying to reclaim some artistic glory. Or perhaps I’m just a wise-ass with too many opinions and without the good sense to keep them respectfully to myself.

My pals told me, “Set up a blog. Capture these Facebook reviews for future reference. They’re great; they’re fun! Blah blah blah.” I have to admit that eventually my ego got the better of me, and, one late night, I explored the wonders that WordPress holds (albeit not that many) and set up ReelRoyReviews as a diary of sorts, detailing my adventures in the cinema.

Here’s the funny thing. Nobody read them. Nobody. At least for quite a while.

Well, that’s not entirely true. My mom was an avid reader and supporter and was always the first to offer an encouraging comment: “My son writes the best reviews and everyone should love them.” So there!

But you know what? Something interesting happened along the way. I stopped caring and just started writing for myself. And I started having fun. And people started reading.

Life is way too short (and exasperating) to get too intense about entertainment, so I try to take a light and conversational approach with my reviews. And I try to respect that (for the most part) these are show business professionals putting (ideally) their best feet forward and that they are human beings with hearts and souls and feelings. I hope I never seem cruel. I don’t mean to be. These writings are off-the-cuff and journal-style and come from as positive a place as I can muster.

Approach everything and everyone honestly and with positive intent and offer candid feedback with an open heart and as much kindness as possible.

Please check out my latest reviews hereDawn of the Planet of the Apes, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Edge of Tomorrow, 22 Jump Street, The Fault in our Stars, and Tammy and more …

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

 

 

 

This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz: Oz the Great and Powerful

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

So I have always loved The Wizard of Oz. Not just the 1939 MGM classic film, but all of the books and the various spin-offs/prequels/sequels/reboots/homages/ rip-offs over the years. I even adore Sidney Lumet’s infamous box office disaster The Wiz.

And, now, we have the latest in a long line: Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful. This isn’t Disney’s first dance in Oz. The company, including Walt himself, has rather famously circled the property since the days of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Most notably, Disney tried to create a movie Oz franchise nearly 30 years ago with the dark and kinda creepy Return to Oz, a movie I also really liked, given its thematic commitment to L. Frank Baum’s original books. But it too was box office poison. (In fact, if I recall, the original Wizard of Oz was pretty tepidly received in its day.)

So how will this James Franco tentpole fair? Disney seems to have its marketing machine in high gear (though that didn’t much help last year’s John Carter) and the subject matter and approach align well with other recent hits like Tim Burton’s bloated-but-uber-successful Alice in Wonderland. I’m guessing this may be the first Oz film to be an unequivocal box office smash in its original run.

Too bad it’s just not a better film.

I enjoyed a lot of it, but the whole thing feels trapped in a CGI/soundstage bubble. There’s just not enough genuine humor, wit, or tension to make it feel like anything but a mammoth cash grab from the Disney empire.

(Note: theme park competitor Universal owns the rights to Broadway musical Wicked, which takes a similar “what happened before Dorothy got there approach.” I couldn’t help reflecting that this was Disney’s attempt to get their version of the story told first, make buckets o’ cash, and then get cracking on some new animatronic theme park attractions before Universal even leaves the starting blocks. Hmmmm…)

Rachel Weisz as one of the three witches of Oz is the only one who seems to be having any fun at all. I’m not a fan, but she gives her Evanora a nice zippy crackle that the rest of the film lacks. James Franco is in fully charmy/smarmy “Franco!” mode, and he’s perfectly serviceable. Mila Kunis alas seems to sleepwalk through her rather pivotal turn as Evanora’s sister – I won’t spoil the surprise, though I understand the merchandise from the Disney Store already has. And Michelle Williams as Glinda has a cute moment or two but mostly seems to be channeling a fluffier version of her uncanny Marilyn Monroe impersonation from My Week with Marilyn.

That is a whole mess of Oscar winners/nominees for this enterprise to be as flat as it is. However, there are a couple of reasonably cute CGI sidekicks – China Girl and a flying monkey named Fenley. They get the best lines but unfortunately seem like refugees from the inevitable Wii U video game to come.

Director Sam Raimi, unfortunately left most traces of his adventurous and sardonic wit with the Spider-Man franchise, and this overly long film suffers for it.  Seriously, cut 20 minutes from this behemoth and there would have been a really good Wonderful World of Disney TV movie in there. Somewhere.

Yes, the movie will make a lot of moolah. Some people may even enjoy it…I will say the exciting conclusion almost made me forget how bored I was by the first 90 minutes of set up. And I daresay we won’t have to wait another 30 years for Disney’s next bite at the Oz apple. Sigh.