One can’t be a fan of cult movies without stumbling upon Reefer Madness, the 1938 anti-marijuana propaganda film that at its best is laughable and at its worst is cringeworthy. The ownership of the original film was never determined, leaving the cult classic in the public domain, which has in turn led to it’s resurgence every couple of years. Last year a newly restored version of the film hit DVD, although nothing was really noteworthy about that release other then the colorization of the movie. This release has something truly different in mind: writers Kevin Murphy, Dan Studney and director Andy Fickman bring their off Broadway musical adaptation of the tale to the screen courtesy of Showtime and the movie may never be the same again.
Despite being a terrible film, there are certain elements of the original Reefer Madness (aka Tell Your Children) that make it hilarious to watch, specifically the horrible, over the top acting and ideas that make up the movie. The filmmakers wanted to scare their audience into believing that one single toke of marijuana would send their kids into a world of insanity, debauchery, and even murder, so even if the players within the film weren’t absolutely horrific actors the basic ideas of the script would still be laughable. The writers of the new musical adaptation, Murphy and Studney, just take those ideas to the next level, with equally bad dialog and even crazier ideas, and just add music.
The story isn’t that far off from the original: Jimmy (Christian Campbell) and Mary (Kristen Bell) are high school sweet hearts, full of naive ideas about how love should be - romantic like Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (they haven’t actually read the full play to find out how it ends). Unfortunately Jimmy is targeted by Jack (Steven Weber), a marijuana dealer always looking for new customers. It isn’t long before Jimmy is introduced to the wonders of wacky weed, causing him to instantly drop all his interests, including school and Mary, in favor of getting high and doing whatever it takes to get that next toke. Along the way his habit leads to him stealing from a church, hitting a pedestrian in his car (although he’s not the one driving), and killing his true love, Mary (although he’s not the one who pulls the trigger). Yes, Marijuana is a killer habit. As the title song says: Reefer Madness is turning our children into hooligans and whores!
To add to the laughability of just how over the top the ideas of Reefer Madness are, the bulk of The Movie Musical is presented as a movie within a movie. Jimmy and Mary’s story is that of Tell Your Children, a movie that is being presented to the parents of an upstanding community by an unnamed lecturer (Alan Cumming). This allows the filmmakers to use their musical to turn this into a different type of cautionary tale: one about propaganda. Any time one of the parents stands up and speaks out about the ridiculousness before them the lecturer shuts them up, making them feel like they have to be one of the pack. As such, the movie becomes a commentary on how propaganda works and allows for a great performance by Cumming who serves not only as the lecturer, but also is inserted into Jimmy and Mary’s story at random points to serve as the narrator. You have to respect an actor who can transform from suited professional one moment, to satanic Goat-Man the next, and wind up as President FDR by the finale, giving each of the parts his full respect and attention when he's in them.
For that matter, all of the performances are incredible, something unexpected from a film that forces as much 1930’s snappy patter as possible, with lines like “he’s wound tighter then an eight-day clock”. Some of the actors, like the two leads (Campbell and Bell), have been with the show since its earlier days and have had plenty of time to grow comfortable with their characters. Others joined just for the movie version of the musical, but still put in impressive performances (Weber and “Saturday Night Live”’s Ana Gasteyer). Most deserving of mention is the acting of Jack’s two always drugged up cohorts: John Kassir (voice of “Tales from the Crypt”’s cryptkeeper) who emulates Bobcat Goldthwait as Ralph, a constantly high junkie, and Amy Spanger as Sally, who puts in a sexy comedic performance worthy of Madeline Kahn. Between the two of them, the metadrama totally sells the idea that there is no drug more dangerous then marijuana, not even heroin. Robert Torti also puts in a strangely fascinating performance as Jesus in one of the musical’s greatest number’s: “Listen to Jesus, Jimmy”. Imagine Jesus as a Vegas lounge singer, complete with tossing communion wafers like guitar picks and you’ve got the idea.
The best compliment I can give the movie is that the songs are infectious: completely enjoyable as the movie presents them and then extremely memorable after everything is over with. The production values of the sixteen musical numbers are amazing, with wondrous adaptations of stage dance numbers brought to the screen. After watching the movie I found myself humming several of the tunes while grocery shopping. I can only thank the region I live in for the fact that nobody looked at me strangely for singing lyrics about loving my Mary Jane. I only wish the film had a soundtrack available so I could continue to enjoy the music outside of the movie (there is a soundtrack available, but it’s for the original L.A. production which was changed for the Off Broadway run and then changed again for the screen adaptation).
The original Reefer Madness really is a film that should have disappeared years ago, but has been kept alive through cult fandom. Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical will most likely be kept alive by that same group of fans, but with one big difference: it actually deserves to stay around! Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney should be incredibly proud of what they’ve accomplished with their little idea of converting the propagandist film to a tongue in cheek musical, as should everyone who has joined them along the way. Part Rocky Horror and part Little Shop of Horrors, this is a film that will be remembered for years to come.
When you make a movie like this, based so strongly on an existing film, the best thing you can do is acknowledge that in some way. This DVD does that and takes it one step further - the original Reefer Madness is included on the disc as a bonus feature. While The Movie Musical runs almost two hours long, the original film is just about half that, making it a quick watch. Watching the original film makes one appreciate this adaptation even more, as it expands characters and makes them more unique then the original story.
“Grass Roots” is a brief featurette that goes behind the scenes of The Movie Musical, with quick glimpses of the show’s successful origins in L.A. to its short stint Off Broadway which fell prey to bad timing (opening night was four days after 9/11). Although only fifteen minutes long, the short manages to get in the history of the show as well as some of the actor’s perspectives on their parts. Honestly, something tells me there’s a lot more behind the show’s history that could have been placed here and that we could have gotten at least an hour’s worth of featurette. However, the main purpose of “Grass Roots” was to promote The Movie Musical on Showtime prior to the first airing of the film, basically making it an in-depth commercial.
The best part of the DVD is the commentary track that accompanies the film. Director Andy Richman, writer/producers Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, and cast members Christian Campbell and Amy Spanger add their thoughts and smart-alec remarks during the movie. The selection of commentary participants is particularly noteworthy since almost all of these people have been with this adaptation of Reefer Madness through several incarnations. The crew haze Campbell for playing the sixteen year old Jimmy despite his age, discuss the “openly gay” Richman (whose girlfriend appears among the dancers) and heap both praise and mockery upon the movie. This is the kind of genuine, honest commentaries more movies could stand to use. Through the commentary we get a stronger sense of the evolution of the show then “Grass Roots” offered, but also a sense of how much fun this project was for these people to work on. The creators of The Movie Musical came up with an original spin on the older tale, and although they’ve had to put in a lot of work to make this happen over the years, you get the impression they’ve had a lot of enjoyment watching everything happen, culminating in a movie version of their show.
Although there’s more I’d like to see about the history of Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical, I have to say this disc is pretty much perfect for the release. I hope Showtime will have the vision to eventually release a soundtrack for the show, but until then this DVD will more then suffice.