Michael Jackson’s only feature film role in Sidney Lumet’s The Wiz (1978) is a rare, cinematic treat— it’s an intimate viewing experience that’s become an even more treasured moment to behold since Michael’s passing a year ago.
In The Wiz, you witness that brief young adult window in Michael’s life and career before he became the sexy R&B, suited up and bow-tied prince of 1979’s Off The Wall or bore the weight of the music world on his crown as The King of Pop (1982-2009). Jackson the actor, then age 20, was a natural; his gentle, understated portrayal of ‘The Scarecrow’ is a quiet revelation. In every scene Michael exudes a child-like wonderment, innocence and infectious joy that is contagious. Of course, as the premier song and dance man he doesn’t disappoint either. Jackson’s bluesy expressive interpretation of “You Can’t Win” is a joy to listen to, because you can actually hear his voice playfully dancing throughout every syllable of the lyrics while his carefree tenor bobs and weaves in and out of the melody (this was also before MJ’s angry signature grunts and spitting adlibs).
Michael Jackson’s performance in The Wiz also allows you to take a sneak peak at those classic signature MJ freestyle dance moves and bottle top spins before they became apart of a Moonwalk. You get to see mentee, lead the mentor, as Michael lovingly helped The Boss, Miss Diana Ross find her footing and get on the good foot the first time the pair “Ease On Down The Road” (the duo also share a warm, easy-going onscreen chemistry which is palpable.) And it’s really a special treat to watch Jackson inconspicuously outdance the Louis Johnson Dance Company during the all-cast musical finale of “A Brand New Day.” If you haven’t notice anything I’ve described, then you should definitely rewatch The Wiz again to bear witness to it. Michael’s only starring film performance is a unique opportunity to experience our man-child genius in the rough and on the verge.
Perhaps the only ironic thing about Jackson in The Wiz is that even though it’s probably his most honest and revealing moment captured on film, his then surgically unaltered face is hidden for the length of movie’s entire 133-minute running time by Academy Award winning makeup artist Stan Winston’s handiwork. So even though we feel like we’re really seeing Michael, we actually never do. And that he would spend the next 30 years after The Wiz, masking his face from a combination of involuntarily— vitilago, and voluntary sources— plastic surgery and skin bleaching creams is also another sad reality not lost on audiences who’ve followed him through the decades. But in the end it never really mattered. True Michael Jackson fans could always look past all the masks theatrical and surgical, real and imagined and see Michael, as he truly was—a consummate performer and groundbreaking spirit. His lifelong work on records, in countless concerts and TV appearances, in music videos and in his only feature film role, is undeniable proof of his timeless genius and artistry. Unlike a human’s life it will never die, but like a boundless force of creative energy it will continue to dazzle and yes, ‘thrill’ audiences for generations to come.—Ronke Idowu Reeves