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Entries in rea mcnamara (1)

Tuesday
Jun292010

In Which Michael Jackson and Diana Ross Become MiDiana

When I Think of Home

by REA MCNAMARA

The Wiz

dir. Sidney Lumet

Somewhere between moving its operations to Los Angeles (but definitely before that Motown 25 Tribute), Berry Gordy Jr. decided to re-assemble his Hitsville U.S.A. factory line into the motion pictures business. Motown had long established a reputation for deftly packaging blackness as mass entertainment, so a big budget adaptation of The Wiz, that 1975 Tony Award-winning "super soul" Wizard of Oz b-side, was a sure bet. (Especially if it were to be headlined by the only two Motown acts he ever managed, Diana Ross and the Jackson 5's Michael Jackson.)

Sidney Lumet directed the musical with typical Rotten Apple grit, long shooting the extremes between a hazy 'Poppy Love Perfume Co.' hootchified street corner, or green-tinting the then-gleaming World Trade Center plaza as an Emerald City louched out with Norma Kamali parchute dresses and Halston slim sarongs. But that, alongside Quincy Jones' Oscar-nominated original music scoring, wasn't enough: the musical's $30 million price tag was box office poison, and some critics reacted adversarially to either Diana Ross not being naif enough as Dorothy, or Joel Schumacher's est-ian script.

Yet perhaps Dorothy's plaintive 'Are You There God?' lyrical request in "Home" was too close to what the Sound of Young America had become for Diana and Michael: nothing more than a K-Tel Records Greatest Hits compilation. "In the film, Dorothy was facing her fear and that was the same thing I was going through that year in New York," Diana Ross told Elin Schoen in an intimate Good Housekeeping interview of that fall/winter of 1977. "I was really facing the fact that I was out there on my own for the first time in my life. It scared me, but I got a chance to face all of the fears." For Diana and Michael, Beverly Hills was "Kansas"; New York City was the Oz of disco-fied glitter chic, and a chance finally to grow up, together.

When the Jackson 5 first came to California in 1970, they all moved into Diana's Hollywood Hills home. Michael was 11; Diana, 26. "I remember that we used to go out to buy paints and easels and we did artwork together," said the mother, lover and sister of Michael, who inspired in him a lifelong interest in art. "I am pleased that I touched him in the early days of his life."

Black outs, block fires, bankruptcy: if Oz was New York City, then Studio 54 was Emerald City. For a brief moment in his life, Michael was a grown man. Him and his sister La Toya shared a downtown apartment free from Joseph and Katherine, and he "danced almost every night at 54 with Liza Minnelli," said Michael. "We'd talk about Judy Garland." Diana was there too, singing in the DJ booth.

"The two singers wear matching costumes: slacks, shirt, and tie," wrote Hilton Als of a live televised "Ease On Down The Road" crisscross kickstep special that replayed constantly on Paradise Garage's large video screen. "Jackson dances next to Ross, adding polish to her appealingly jerky moves; he does Ross better than Ross." 

Oh Mahogany Lady, how were you always "washed out in the bright light"? Michael must have slept on this question every night in the solitude of his candle-lit Diana Ross shrine.

The Wiz shot six days a week, so most nights were spent alone: at home in the Sherry Netherland co-op still reeling from the first "Mr. Diana Ross" divorce, or sitting in the boardroom at 19, wrestling post-breach from Philly International to Epic.

Did they find in each other the yellow brick road to self-actualization? Diana called Michael “an inspiration”; he declared his intentions to marry her in an Ebony interview. They both had grown up, and friend to friend, had finally loosened that Gordy-an knot.

"Michael will you come?" At the edge of the Forum Theatre stage, she gyrated in a clingy sequined white, waiting for her 'Muscle man'. He emerges to turn the pink spotlight, corkscrew kicking out the bottomline in tight blue jeans. They rock around and round until she passes the microphone; he leaps away to solo so she can finally dip down low.

But Michael was an Off The Wall supernova, a triplicate peak luminosity soon to be scaled by moonwalk. He moved mountains and charity singles; she however, was now the eclipsed light curve who flooded Central Park with her rain dance.

For the sparrow and crow who suffered everything and nothing, the twilight was interiors filled with mirrors and poses. Ross renovated a Tobacco Heiress fortress in Greenwich, Connecticut with gold records and Rembrandts. Michael retreated to Neverland's carnival rides and dollhouses, lining walls with his mortality.

The Wiz will always be the cellulite proof of their then-brand-new post-Motown world — nightlife, record sessions, sound stages and late night phone calls. The scarecrow's knock-kneed walk was an abridged farewell to Michael's ex-child stardom; Diana was Dorothy, and by the time the film wrapped in 1978, she had gone inside of her self, love overflowing the “long suffered-emptiness...I, like Dorothy, had found everything I was searching for was right there with me all along."

Rea McNamara is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Toronto. You can find her website here. She tumbls here.

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"Ease on Down the Road" - Diana Ross & Michael Jackson (mp3)

"Go Bang 3" - Gang of Two (mp3)

"Friend to Friend (Original CHIC Mix)" - Diana Ross (mp3)

Credits

DOROTHY/DIANA Sarah Taylor

SCARECROW/MICHAEL Daniyah-Daniel Gordon

EMERALD CITY BUS BOYS The House of Monroe

DIRECTION Rea McNamara

PHOTOGRAPHY Alyssa Katherine Faoro

STYLING Filipe Ventena

MAKE-UP Roxanne DeNobrega

HAIR Israel Garcia of Salon Daniel

ASSISTANCE Jeba Bowers Murphy

SPECIAL THANKS: 69 Vintage, Chasse Gardée, Gadabout Vintage, Sian Llewelyn, Lost+Found, Rozaneh Vintage Clothing, Textile & Accessories, Todd-Rod Skimmins

Shot at Studio 107, Toronto

actual cast photo, 1978