Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 30, 2005

Directed by Andy Fickman/screenplay by Kevin Murphy & Dan Studney, based on their musical stage play/starring Kristen Bell, Christian Campbell, Neve Campbell, Alan Cumming, Ana Gasteyer, Steven Weber/Showtime Home Entertainment

A film based on a musical play, which was based on the 1936 propaganda piece-turned-cult classic Reefer Madness. Everybody got that?

I have to confess, I’ve never been a big fan of musicals. It’s not that I hate them or that I dismiss them as a genre; they’re just not for me. Not that there are actually that many getting made these days, but while my viewing habits tend to encompass plenty of different genres and subgenres, musicals just aren’t my first choice. I still have yet to see Chicago, and Moulin Rouge made me want to rip my teeth out with my bare hands and throw them at the screen. Of course I respect the greats, like Busby Berkeley, Astaire and Rogers, Gene Kelly, etc., but I haven’t actually watched any of their films in years. The last musical I thought was really great was Little Shop of Horrors, if that gives you any indication of my tastes. Under pressure, I’ll admit to a grudging adolescence-based affection for the Grease soundtrack (mainly due to a preteen crush on Olivia Newton-John, I suspect), but I find the movie itself virtually unwatchable now. I did enjoy Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You upon initial release, but haven’t felt the need to watch it since. Otherwise…musicals just aren’t my thing.

Having said all that, I’ve seen Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical twice now, and both times it absolutely rocked my socks off. I unequivocally adore this movie, and I challenge any intelligent person with a sense of humor to watch it and not feel the same. It’s not only the best musical I’ve seen in years, it’s the funniest damn thing I’ve seen on any screen all year long. Period. While some have dismissed it sight unseen as “just a cable movie”, it actually played some film festivals before going to Showtime, and upon my first viewing I was just stunned that this thing didn’t get even a limited theatrical release. At the very least, Madness could have developed a cult following on the strength of its subject matter (certain people will show up for anything involving pot), its subversive and pointed humor, its talented cast displaying give-it-all-you’ve-got gusto, and the simple fact that it’s so much fun to watch. Don’t we need more movies like that?

Inspired by the 1936 cult film, a legendarily ludicrous propaganda piece extolling the evils of marijuana use and its harmful effect on the youth of America, the musical details the downfall of teenagers Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and Mary Lane (Bell), both of whom are the very picture of clean-cut, innocent pre-WWII Americana. In search of simple dancing lessons to keep up with Mary at the school sock hop, Jimmy finds himself approached by a sleazy pusher (Weber), who takes the kid back to his drug house and gives him his first joint. The story is told as a movie-within-a-movie, shown at a meeting of concerned small-town parents by an insidiously persuasive government agent (Cumming), who throws in unsubstantiated “facts” about marijuana and likens everyone who questions him to the dreaded Communists and (god forbid) liberals.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen the original film that Jimmy and Mary wind up succumbing to the demon weed, and ruining their lives in increasingly outrageous ways as a result. It’s how they get there that’s important, and the musical is chock-full of hilarious scenes and songs that both advance the narrative and lampoon the naïveté of both its source film and the easily swayed culture that bought into it, throwing in everything from cannibalism and spousal abuse to swipes at certain political and business figures of the time to make its points. It’s all played way over the top, and appropriately so; writers Murphy and Studney are imagining a world in which the one-dimensional histrionics and simple-minded rationalizations of the original are writ large in musical form and taken to their furthest potential extremes. They’re lampooning the foibles of a sanitized America that was all too eager to believe whatever lies were told them, and too scared and intimidated to question them. So there are no sacred cows here, and the funniest song (which is saying a lot) is the hysterically blasphemous “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy” which envisions the Christian messiah as a smooth Vegas lounge singer who must have all the answers because, well, he’s the coolest cat in the room, dig?

So as Jimmy and Mary each lose their innocence, so inevitably does America, and god knows we can’t have that. It’s up to the culture warriors and demonizers to “protect” us from something they’re sure we can’t handle. It’s not that RM: TMM is pro-marijuana so much as it is anti-propaganda, and it continuously points out the insidiousness of those who would use religion and politics to interfere in our personal lives, as well as the blatant obviousness of their tactics, and the sad fact that it works on us all too often. Even if the final number lays that message on a little thick, by then they’ve fully earned the right to preach a little. I’ll leave it up to you to determine the relevance of that message in our current society.

It certainly helps that the entire cast seems game and completely in on the joke, without ever betraying that. The standout is the wonderful and talented Kristen Bell, who is honestly just spectacular here. I’ve gone on record as having a massive crush on Bell, and I think Veronica Mars is the greatest thing to hit TV since Twin Peaks, so I can’t even pretend to be objective about her as a performer. But the truth is, her talent just speaks for itself – she’s a damn fine actress, and her versatility is fully on display here. Playing the “vomitously perky” (in Bell’s own words) Mary Lane, who’s about as un-Veronica as you can get, Bell isn’t just “funny” – she’s FUNNY. You can see in her every action and line reading that she completely gets the joke, while at the same time she’s utterly convincing in the role. She just sells it completely, without ever seeming like she’s forcing it. And can she ever sing! Whether she’s innocently giggling over the flowery romantic language of Romeo and Juliet (Mary hasn’t read the ending yet, but she’s sure it “turns out swell”) or transforming into an uncontrollable sexpot under the influence of one toke, Mary is completely believable in Bell’s hands, and both times I could not take my eyes off of her. It’s worth noting that she actually played the role in an off-Broadway production, so she obviously knew the part inside and out, but that only adds to the level of skill inherent in her performance. She’s just fantastic, and while Bell may top out at an obscenely cute five-foot-zero, there’s nothing diminutive about her talent or her beauty. Mark my words – Kristen Bell is a star. Count on it.

But having said that, it would be completely unfair not to recognize the rest of the cast, who are uniformly terrific. Cumming is damn near brilliant as the omnipresent narrator who can make just about anything seem sinister and un-American, including jazz and Shakespeare. Former SNL cast member Gasteyer is hysterical as the abused dope-house proprietor Mae, who manages to take her suffering to absurdly melodramatic heights. Weber turns his slick and menacing pusher into a sharp caricature of the sleazy, unrepentant ‘30’s gangster criminal, the kind of guy who sells dope to kids and knocks around his wife for kicks, and somehow manages to get laughs out of him. Lesser-known (at least to me) veterans from the stage play shine as well, especially Amy Spanger as the hard-bitten neighborhood drug slut who’s ridiculously careless with her baby, and John Kassir (the voice of Tales from the Crypt’s Cryptkeeper) as a hopeless dope fiend with an insane laugh who tries to seduce Mary and ends up getting more than he bargained for. And Neve Campbell turns up in one extended dance number as a soda-shop waitress, proving that she can dance up a storm and look sexy as hell doing it. While she’s listed in the credits as one of the film’s stars, it’s essentially a glorified cameo – but she makes one hell of an impression. What more do you need?

When all is said and done, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is simply one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, regardless of venue. It’s a great musical, with songs that are both hilarious and tuneful, and it’s a rather brilliant comedy as well, full of the kind of genuinely subversive and edgy humor we don’t see enough of anymore. Not to mention a cast that acts the living hell out of it. And it’s got reefer zombies! For Christ’s sake, what more do you want? Some might dismiss it as a one-joke movie, and they might not be wrong. But it’s a damn good joke, and for those of us who get it, it’s an absolute blast. We need more movies like this – maybe now more than ever.

“But wait”, you’re saying to yourself, “why should I rent or buy a movie that I can watch on cable for free?” Good question. How about this – in addition to a brief but informative behind-the-scenes documentary that details the conspiracy to demonize marijuana, as well as a cast commentary (not including Bell, unfortunately), the disc also includes the original Reefer Madness! So you get two movies for the price of one! Although after watching the musical, you might not find the original quite as funny anymore – compared to the liveliness and spirit of the musical, the original movie seems dreary and flat now. Seeing it again for the first time in years, I think it’s more valuable as a cultural artifact than as an actual movie you’d want to sit through for 68 minutes. Still, it’s interesting to compare the differences between the two, and if you’re a fan of the 1936 version, this is an unbeatable combination.

If more musicals were like Reefer Madness, I’d be a fan for life.

New musical version: **** Original 1936 version: **   11/30/05

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