Reefer Madness: the musical movie!

Alan CummingAlan CummingHold on to your baggie, your bowl, and your DVD player ? the madness is back!
Midnight classic Reefer Madness has been juiced up with dance routines, an all-star cast, a stirring Broadway score, mercilessly ironic song lyrics with a powerful political message, and best of all for the habitu?s of reefer dens around the world, a lot of laughs.

For more than five years, from sweeping theatre awards in Los Angeles, to mind-numbingly bad timing in New York, to a movie production in Vancouver, Reefer Madness has been barreling ? well, maybe staggering ? to a TV screen near you.

The Showtime production is starring the Canadian brother and sister duo of Christian and Neve Campbell, plus Alan Cumming (X-Men), Ana Gasteyer (Saturday Night Live), Steven Weber (Broadway’s The Producers, Wings), John Kassir, Bob Torti, and newcomer Kristen Bell as the most virginal ingenue in movie history, Mary Lane.

The taste of BC

Many of the cast and crew got a real lesson in marijuana while filming the movie in Canada’s cannabis capital.

“I’ve never really enjoyed it [marijuana]until I was in Vancouver, strangely enough shooting Reefer Madness,” star of the stage and movie version, Christian Campbell, told Cannabis Culture. “And my goodness, the marijuana there is fantastic. It is unbelievable. The crew? They were like born-again Christians. They were loving it, talking about the BC bud, the BC hydro. Now I know what all the hubbub is about.”

Christian Campbell is the older brother of Neve Campbell, whose connection to one of the writers, Dan Studney, a production assistant on Party of Five, led to the casting of the dimpled, fresh-faced Christian. He stars as Jimmy, a character amalgam of Jimmy and Billy from the original movie. Neve’s role in the movie, little more than a cameo, is Miss Poppy, the singing and dancing proprietor of the five-and-dime. This character was created for her out of the original Mr Poppy.

Christian, who has played the lead in both stage versions and now in the movie to some critical acclaim, concedes he does puff, but he is no cannabis connoisseur.

“Ya, I do smoke, but I’m definitely not a chronic,” he said. “Down in New York city it is just too expensive and crappy and frankly you’ve got to memorize too many lines.”

John Kassir and Christian CampbellJohn Kassir and Christian CampbellThe original cast speaks out

The producers of Reefer Madness tracked down the original Mae from the 1936 production, Thelma White, who was living in Los Angeles. Writer Kevin Murphy said that she told them the original film was financed by a well-enough-intentioned church group but most on the set knew the whole thing was silly.

So if the 1930’s acting that was still transitioning from silent to talkies didn’t provide enough crappy acting, the actors in Reefer Madness played it up even more.

“In her words, they knew what they were doing was goofy and they were just going with that on purpose,” Murphy told Cannabis Culture. “The original people who were making it were taking it very seriously but some of the actors were like, ‘okay, ya, whatever,’ this is a pay check, we’re not fools. I think there is this great irony that they made this movie and this is her legacy. I mean they probably shot it in a weekend and what is it, 70 years later? Everybody still remembers it.”

The birth of a musical

The remake of Reefer Madness was the creation of Hollywood writers and old university friends, Dan Studney and Kevin Murphy. The way they tell it, the two of them were on a road trip from Oklahoma to Los Angeles, listening to Frank Zappa singing about catholic girls smoking reefer, and the idea was born.

“The minute that idea popped into our heads we immediately started seeing how the melodramatic exploitation film’s story could really lend itself well to the heightened language of musical theatre,” Murphy told Cannabis Culture. “One of the things that’s really important in a musical is having a story that is so emotional and so large and so rich that it can only be expressed in musical language and at its core that’s what Reefer Madness really is… and it becomes this gonzo-pop-opera.”

And the inverted politics of Reefer Madness was an attraction to the writers who are, incidentally, also the executive producers along with director Alan Fickman.

“The other thing that appealed to the two of us was the idea of disinformation and propaganda, because what the original movie is really known for is this incredibly ill-conceived example of 1930’s agitprop.”

John Kassir lost in a jungle of weed.John Kassir lost in a jungle of weed.Murphy wrote the lyrics, Studney wrote the music, and they co-wrote the book for the musical that hit the stage of Los Angeles’ Hudson Backstage Theatre in 1999. Their show dominated the LA theatre scene, leading to an unprecedented year and a half run, while winning tons of LA Drama Critics Circle and Ovation awards.

“We basically cleaned them all out,” Campbell said. “There is not a lot of theatre that goes on in LA. It’s all film, so for them to keep a show open for a year and a half… It was definitely an anomaly.”

After a time, “Reefer zombies” began coming night after night ? la Rocky Horror Picture Show, dressed as their favorite characters and memorizing the songs. Yet despite the raging success, the show still lost between $200,000 and $300,000, according to Campbell.

“We were just keeping it alive simply because we had faith in it. We knew we had something special that would eventually go to Broadway or off-Broadway and eventually get made into a Rocky Horror Picture Show. We’ve got another Rocky Horror.”

The cult-like popularity of the 1936 Reefer Madness, coupled with the musical Rocky Horror-esque production sure makes for an obvious comparison. But Murphy is a lot more modest in his expectations than Campbell.

“The minute you try to write a show to become a cult classic you will do nothing but embarrass yourself,” Murphy emphatically explained, seemingly hoping to avoid a jinx. “You will vigorously embarrass yourself. It’s a movie that I’m very proud of. The music is wonderful, it is a fun entertaining roller-coaster ride and hopefully between all the crazy elements there is a story that people will respond to and characters that people will embrace and beyond that I think it would be pretentious to hope for anything other than that.”

Reefer Madness was picked up by new entertainment president of Showtime, and former HBO producer of Six Feet Under, Bob Greenblatt. The current plan for the movie is as a Showtime Original Picture to be released in early 2005. But clearly the long-term life for a musical based on many a pot-smoker’s cult favorite is DVD. Imagine the sell of this movie complete with the 1936 original ? not to mention all the other tidbits possible ? all on one DVD?

“They are already thinking about that,” Campbell confided, adding he has big screen hopes for the movie: “We are all keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that they will love it so much that they will give it a limited release in theatres.”

Bob Torti as the singing Jesus.Bob Torti as the singing Jesus.Al Qaeda spoils the party

In 2001, after the Los Angeles production of Reefer Madness: the Musical finally ended, it was picked up by the youngest member in a long-time New York Broadway producing family, James L Nederlander. The financing was in place, the battle to keep most of the LA cast was won, and Reefer Madness: the Musical was ready to hit New York City.

Then two planes were intentionally flown into the largest buildings in Manhattan.

“I remember going to rehearsals right after I had watched the second plane go into the tower and all morning sat in my apartment trying to keep the smoke out,” Campbell said. “And then I was like, ‘Okay, 12 noon, towers are down, I guess we have to go to rehearsals now’ ? and we did. The producers ordered us into work.

“So that was preview week. Not a good time to open a comedy and especially not a political satire of the American propaganda system just when the drums of war were beating.”

Opening night was the night the US started bombing Afghanistan, according to Campbell. The play just couldn’t last long.

“Not only were people physically barred by National Guardsmen from accessing the theatre,” Murphy explained, “you don’t have a lot of foot traffic when you have to show your driver’s license and get strip-searched in the theatre lobby… It was not the healthiest incubator for a show like Reefer Madness: the Musical.”

It is hard to take Reefer Madness (the 1936 version) for anything more than a hilarious ? if idiotic ? exploitation film worthy of ridicule and sarcastic commentary. But the obvious parody of such a blatantly bad propaganda film is more than a silly gag, more than a commentary on the drug war, it is an attack on the institution of disinformation that is so relied upon by hegemonic regimes. The message of Reefer Madness: the Musical, was not something that New Yorkers were interested in hearing in September and October 2001.

Post 9/11 criticisms of America were not only distasteful, they were financially dangerous. Amidst a fog of arbitrarily vengeful and politically-motivated war, America has created such a monster of herself that any sympathy for the world’s most powerful nation has fizzled out like a spent roach. We are still living in a “post 9/11 world” ? to use the tedious clich? ? but clearly it is “post” enough that the world is allowed again to criticize, and Americans themselves are criticizing, the United States’ foreign and domestic drug war that is directly and indirectly killing thousands of people and ruining countless lives, not to mention backfiring altogether.

Without overstating Reefer Madness‘ potential as a polemical tool, this badly-made exploitation film turned campy musical extravaganza could help as a galvanizing tool in the increasingly mainstream battle against a devastating and ridiculous drug war. Or, it might be nothing more than a hilarious midnight laughathon for tokers everywhere. Either way, those involved think it will have done its job.

Kristen Bell as the innocent Mary Lane.Kristen Bell as the innocent Mary Lane.So what’s the message of the new Reefer Madness, according to its writer?

“Well I think the point, if there is one, and I’m going to paraphrase Matt Groening here who said this once more articulately than me, is that authority figures do not always have your best interests at heart, no matter what they tell you. I think it really all boils down to that.”

Remember how raucous things got in the original Reefer Madness? Some jazz music, some swing dancing, some badly choreographed fight scenes, a little toking, implied sex behind a closed door. The message of the original was one intended to shock and awe parents of potential marijuana smokers.

But to shock an audience in 2004 you need a lot more than you did in 1936. So we are given a singing Jesus Christ doing the number Listen to Jesus, Jimmy, an orgy number with everyone dancing around with marijuana leaves covering their privates, poor Mary Lane getting sodomized in hell by goat man, not to mention constant scenes of decapitation and bloodletting.

Murphy explained, “Hopefully the smart part is when we look at the ways that people manipulate the manner in which we think, they use fear. They use horror. Fear of the unknown… In the 1930’s, marijuana is smoked by black jazz musicians who will use it to hypnotize your white daughters and wives, succumbing to the power of voodoo jazz music with all those unnecessary grace notes. So if you want to fight marijuana you better give us a lot of power and let us control your lives.”

The final number in the movie includes a singing, dancing Uncle Sam, George Washington, Lady Liberty, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt doing a “big patriotic John Philip Sousa number” called, “Tell ‘Em the Truth.”

Some of the lyrics:

“The pungent smoke will rot your brain ’til you’re incurably insane/ Trust us to tell them the truth/ With voices raised in song, we’re banishing the bong/ Our children teeter on the brink, we need to teach them what to think/ Trust us to tell them the truth.

“Once the reefer has been destroyed, we’ll start on Darwin and Sigmund Freud/ and the sex depicted on celluloid, and communists and queens/ When danger’s near exploit their fear, the end will justify the means.”

This lampooning of jingoism is at once hilarious and a deadly serious criticism of the US and propagandizing machinations everywhere.

“We appeal to their sense of patriotism and we use the flag and we use Jesus and we use fear and the idea is to sort of tuck all of these ideas in the basic story from the original Reefer Madness,” Murphy said.

The parallel ? at least as analogy ? between the current Bush regime and the 1930’s is frightening. It’s 1934 or 2004. A powerful industrial interest fears a threat to that interest. So what does any powerful industry or nation do? Create an enemy and a super-heightened sense of fear in the general population. Then, kill ’em all.

In the 1930’s, William Randolph Hearst’s immense forest interests were threatened by the potentially highly competitive hemp crops. Conveniently, he also owned a massive number of newspapers, making propagandizing easy. Much like the racist interchanging of one bad Arab or Muslim for another that currently goes on in the Western world, so too did Hearst realize that by demonizing marijuana with all the fervor he could muster, hemp would fall as well.

Stephen Weber as the slick pot pusher. Stephen Weber as the slick pot pusher. Canada grows primo ideas, not just good bud

While up in Vancouver shooting Reefer Madness, the producers say they had one of the happiest, most contented local crews ever to assemble on a movie set.

“It really was fascinating being in a culture where people are out in the open, openly smoking marijuana,” Murphy explained. “Occasionally the crew was off sparking a fatty behind the crew truck. One of the things that we benefitted from was we had such an enthusiastic crew because people who like marijuana, they like their marijuana, and everyone was enjoying doing a show that was about singing, dancing potheads. The crew was just having the time of their lives.”

Making Reefer Madness certainly was a lot of fun for those involved but the seriousness with which many oppose the US drug war almost overshadows the fun-loving irony of the picture.

Campbell thinks it will be interesting if Canada tries to decriminalize marijuana, considering the vested interest the US has in seeing that not happen. Given the current regime in the US ? and lacking any evidence that a John Kerry regime will be much better ? it is hard to see how attitudes, laws, policies towards marijuana will change any time soon. Campbell says America is slow to change because she is such a big, conservative nation.

“If it’s shown to the American people that right across our border a nation decriminalized or legalized the use of a drug and society didn’t implode upon itself, and is still standing today and still has upstanding citizens who aren’t blowing each other’s heads off or raping one another,” Campbell passionately elaborates, “that’s really going to undermine the entire anti-marijuana campaign; the ‘Just Say No’ thing.”

Reefer Madness should be released on Showtime in early 2005. Will it penetrate past the stoner crowd and help change mainstream minds?

“The people who feel free and are cool enough to laugh at a movie like Reefer Madness probably already have pretty enlightened views about that particular subject,” Murphy said. “I think the people that have a problem with it… I don’t know that they’re going to be that inclined to seek out the movie version of Reefer Madness.”

Campbell is slightly more hopeful.

“I think it will allow people to laugh at the hypocrisy, at the absurdity of it all.”Stephen Weber as the slick pot pusher.

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