Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical

Rogue Reviewers Roundtable Review: December ‘05 – The Devil Made Me Do It!


For those of you who are unfamiliar with the source material for this Showtime musical extravaganza, Reefer Madness was a propaganda film released in 1936 under its original title, Tell Your Children. Though meant to be taken as a pseudo-documentary about the dangers of marijuana and its effects on the youth of America, it has since become a camp classic, as many of its “facts” about the wacky weed are extremely exaggerated and the story, about a young man who falls prey to the ganja, is just a tad melodramatic. In 1997 the movie was turned into a stage musical, and the release of a special edition DVD (with Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Mike Nelson giving commentary) only made it more popular. Now, with the release of Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical on DVD, I think it can be said this little flick has truly come full circle. And it’s a good thing, too, as this is one of the best musicals I’ve seen in quite some time.

The musical begins much like the original film, with a group of parents gathering at a local high school in the 1950s. There they meet a lecturer played by Alan Cumming, who immediately begins to denounce the evils of marijuana. Cumming is fantastic in his role, giving the title song “Reefer Madness” a truly sinister, conspiratorial hiss. The tune is made all the better when zombified prom queens and football players appear on the scene, terrorizing the parents and setting an appropriately bizarre tone. Of course it’s all part of a hysterical vision fueled by the lecturer’s propaganda, but the parents are far too scared to question this government official’s supposed authority.

From there the lecturer relates the story of Jimmy Harper and Mary Lane, two clean cut kids whose lives are effectively ruined when a drug pusher and his gang lure them into their world of bongs, munchies, and, well, madness. Cumming pops up many times as the narrator of this cautionary tale, appearing as extras in the background of the main action. He’s a beatnik, the town crosswalk officer, a priest, and so forth. It’s a nice device that roots the movie, as slow moments are helped by the appearance of Cumming and his hilarious warnings about reefer.

The rest of the cast is altogether excellent, especially Christian Campbell as Jimmy and Kristen Bell as Mary Lane. Both are top notch singers and dancers, and they perfectly embody the “gee-golly” attitude needed to play such dorky characters. Ana Gasteyer is another highlight, a beautiful and powerful belter who gets the privilege of playing a doped-up lass named Mae. Her solo song, “The Stuff,” is one of my personal favorites from the film, with lyrics ranging in tone from fluffy humor to downright distaste. When you hear Mae scream about being raped you won’t know whether to laugh or raise an eyebrow, and this sort of imbalance is what made me like the film. Other members of the cast include John Kassir as the consistently stoned Ralph, Amy Spanger as a baby-hating skank, and Steven Weber as the evil drug pusher. All are amazing talents, and together they create a solid foundation.

Of course, no musical would be complete without a good amount of dance numbers, and I was really impressed by the choreography on display. The longest and most elaborate sequence, in which Jimmy succumbs to the weed and participates in a crazed, satanic orgy, is the best, sporting such varied styles as Fosse, Bollywood, and, of course, jazz. Another takes place at “the ol’ Five & Dime,” the local teen hangout where the kids get their groove on. Kinetic and hilarious at the same time, the dancing is always complex and well filmed, and made all the better because Neve Campbell keeps popping up as a waitress. “Neve Campbell, hilarious?” you might wonder. Yes, yes indeed.

Like most projects where the material is so inherently satirical, the movie begins to run out of steam during the last half hour. The humor moves from being wordy to violent and gory, which is interesting at first but intentionally becomes redundant. I knew the movie no longer cared about being at all realistic when Mae pulled her husband’s heart out of his chest cavity during a reprise of “The Stuff.” However, the movie ends on a perfect note, slipping in a covert message about exploiting fear in times of national crisis. It’s a great moral, and always topical, so it was nice to see the lyricists bringing the audience to a point. But the movie is wonderful without the platitudes, so I highly recommend it for people who need a lot of laughs and fun in their near future.

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