You Can’t Win: Michael Jackson and ‘The Wiz’

It’s shocking to think that, as the noted king of all other media (including a couple he probably would have preferred not to be), Michael Jackson was never a movie star. It’s not that he lacked the talent or charisma. As his music videos would later show, he had phony onscreen magnetism to spare. It certainly wasn’t from a lack of prospects. If Barry Gordy could court his favorite female Diana Ross into numerous high profile cinematic gigs, he could have certainly found the fledgling child prodigy a Bless the Beasts and Children to call his own. Oddly enough, it took the ex-Supreme usurping an already poised Stephanie Mills to give her favorite man-child his sole shot at stardom. Sadly, elements both inside and out of The Wiz would work to guarantee that Michael Jackson’s big screen career would be controversial, and brief.

As a Broadway bombshell, the urban retelling of the Frank L. Baum classic was a certified showstopper, a uniquely forged combination of ’70s soul swagger and fabled folklore. Among the many perks that came with starring in the show was the inevitable agreement between producers and Hollywood heavyweights hoping to cash in on the success. All signs pointed upward when Quincy Jones was brought on as the musical supervisor. He immediately contacted the songwriting team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson to help him retool the score. While that should have sent up some sensible warning signs (Charlie Smalls had won the Tony for the terrific tunes he originally crafted for the show), everyone figured Jones knew what he was doing. The bigger concern came with casting.

You have to give him credit — Gordy wanted Mills to repeat her stage role as Dorothy. He was also committed to Ted Ross as the Cowardly Lion and Mabel King as the Wicked Witch. But when Ms. Diana demanded that she be cast, Gordy actually stood up to the star and said “No”. He was correct in assuming she was too old — 33 — to play the lost little ‘girl’ from the ghetto. Of course, fame (and a faux Oscar nod) counts for something in Hollywood, and when the diva contacted producer Rob Cohen, he thought she was perfect for the part. Exit Stephanie Mills, enter an almost middle-aged lead. Along with the casting of comedians Nipsey Russell and Richard Pryor (both hot at the time, but not necessarily musical material) and the EST-filled rewrite by aspiring screenwriter Joel Schumacher (yes – THAT Joel Schumacher), The Wiz was poised to be a problem.

Oddly enough, bringing on Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow was actually a rather wise move. He and Ross were tight, and he was riding a wave of success with the recent CBS release The Jacksons (with its hit single “Enjoy Yourself”). He dedicated himself to fleshing out the character, and was instrumental in polishing his moves and costume design. Fans were clearly chuffed at the possibility of hearing these soul icons running through classics like “Ease on Down the Road”, and for the most part, their devotion was rewarded. But with the hiring of Ross came many creative differences. Original director John “Saturday Night Fever” Badham left, citing his lead’s age as the main stumbling block to continuing. One of the post-modern movement’s greatest auteurs stepped in: Sidney Lumet. He immediately began interjecting his own ideas, including the look of a ‘fantasy’ New York City and the hiring of his then mother-in-law, Lena Horne.

With its troubled start and expensive production, The Wiz was a gamble — one that didn’t pay off. For most, it was a minor pothole in their professional continuity. Almost everyone went on to bigger and better things cinematically (or theatrically) except for Ross and Jackson. For the former, it was an odd send-off. She had made several successful films, but with her first pure musical (Lady Sings the Blues doesn’t count) she had fired up a dud. But for the fledgling superstar latter, things were totally different. Working with Jones would lead to a trio of time honored recording classics — Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad. But even with numerous rumored projects in the works — an Edgar Allan Poe biopic, a remake of the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao — Jackson never made it back onto the big screen, save for a couple of cameos and a dance-oriented Disney attraction.

The reasons why seem obvious now – you can’t commit to the process of making a movie when you are the biggest pop star in the world. From the late ’70s to the early ’90s, he literally ruled the planet. Between videos (already more or less cinema when you think of it), concert tours, recording, and “ancillary” personal commitments, there simply was no time. Besides, Michael’s turn as the Scarecrow didn’t have the impact he was looking for. Hating the song given to the character in the show, “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday”, Jones scuttled the tune and asked Smalls for something else. Digging up a rejected number for the show, “You Can’t Win, You Can’t Break Even” became the new lament for the intellectually challenged character. Jackson delivered a knock-out performance, but it was clear why the material was dropped. It may have sounded good in rehearsals, but came across as defeatist and depressing on film.

Add in the numerous allegations and scandal, the questionable impact of Jackson as a movie icon, the need to specialize scripts and subject matter to his often oddball needs (look no further than his “feature” Moonwalker for an example of said aesthetic) and you have a man who was made to do everything — except star in films. When you look back at his legacy, when you witness the amazing amount of creative character he put into his work, the concept of “collaboration” was far outside his vocabulary. Sure, he wrote songs with others and worked with them as producers and artistic assistants, but cinema is all about the shared process — directors with their vision, writers with their words, other actors with their input, technicians with their visual imprint. For someone who micromanaged his image so carefully, it’s hard to see Jackson working within a group the way film requires.

It’s prophetic then that Jackson was given a song loaded with negative acknowledgements of defeat instead of the rather optimistic, upbeat stanzas celebrated in the original Broadway tune. It’s as if his entire future was being summed up in a single statement, a look forward at what overwhelming fame and a life lost in the limelight would create. After all, the greatest character Michael Jackson ever forged was the pale-skinned cipher who seemed to exist in a universe filled with unfettered fantasy, plastic surgery platitudes, devilish dance moves, and melodies as sugary as Southern sweet tea. No screenwriter could craft anything more insane or imaginative. No director could dial down the sense of melodrama and manipulation. Even his brief appearance in Men in Black was meant as an oddity, a complement to the “aliens among us” idea of the franchise.

So with his passing comes the inevitable game of “what if”. What if he hadn’t been so horrified by his past? What if he hadn’t taken to the scalpel and his playground sanctuary as a way of coping? What if his latter albums sold as well as his earlier works? What if he hadn’t burned bridges with the likes of Paul McCartney and John Landis? What if his outward oddness hadn’t hampered his actual desire to help the small and defenseless? What if everything everyone ever said about him was a lie — an extortion-like conspiracy to rob the richest musician on the planet of the money his muse provided? Sadly, we will never know. With a little more than half of his life under his belt, Michael Jackson ended the cosmic concert an encore or two too soon. In life as in death, he just couldn’t win. Somehow, the elements around The Wiz knew that.