Reefer Madness:
The Movie Musical

directed by Andy Fickman
(Showtime, 2005)

Who would have imagined the 1936 anti-drug film Reefer Madness would become a movie musical? Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, that's who.

Murphy and Studney were driving from Oakland to Los Angeles a few years back, listening to some Frank Zappa -- in particular a line about Catholic girls smoking reefer -- when the idea hit them. Before they'd reached L.A., the story goes, they'd written the first song.

Many more were to follow. In fact, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical -- a Showtime film that premiered at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival -- plays more like a musical revue than a traditional musical. The actors, or should we say overactors, dialogue their way quickly from song to song, more than a dozen of them, and each song seems to lead to a dance number, which in turns leads to some dialogue that suggests another song.

The plot, or what there is of it, follows the original more closely than many remakes do, though of course this is more a re-mock than a remake. And that's fitting.

Reefer Madness, which no doubt scared the bejesus out of audiences when it was first released, is about as over-the-top as a propaganda film can be, suggesting -- no, saying in no uncertain terms -- that marijuana is far more dangerous than any other drug, including heroin, a claim even its most ardent opponents nowadays admit won't hold water.

Its alleged plot involves high school lovers Mary Lane and Bill Harper, who get dragged into the world of reefer by local drug dealer Jack Perry and his chief squeeze, Mae. The story is related by their high school principal at a PTA meeting, as a warning to parents who think it can't happen here.

Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical ramps thing up a notch or two. This time the story is told, between film clips, by a federal agent who, for better or worse, manages to throw in a few mock digs at gays and communists as well as drug dealers.

Mary and Jimmy are back, now played by Kristen Bell and Christian Campbell. They get a lot of help from Neve Campbell as Miss Poppy, who helps launch a drugstore dance routine that's among the film's finest.

Back too are Jack -- now with the last name Stone (Steven Weber) -- and Mae (Ana Gasteyer) as the drug pushers. They get a bit of help, too, from the film's most riotous characters, stoners Sally DeBains (Amy Spanger) and Ralph Wiley (John Kassir), who, when they're not laughing hysterically or leaving Sally's baby on the just-lit stove, are luring Mary and Jimmy into lurid acts.

One toke, and songs become thongs and Jimmy is humping the furniture. Two tokes, and mischief turns to mayhem, manslaughter and, before long, murder.

Heightening the effect is director Andy Fickman's decision to give the film an Oz-ish look by flipping back and forth between black-and-white and color. The fed's meeting with the parents is strictly two-tone, reminiscent in some ways -- appropriately enough -- of the monochrome masterpiece Ed Wood.

Mary and Jimmy's story, however, is in full, in-your-face color, done with all the energy of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical and none of the restraint. Of all the lovers' songs, and there are plenty, "Mary Jane, Mary Lane" probably comes off best, looking almost improv at times and adding a joyous note to a frequently frantic, ghoulish and, at times, oddly dark film. The song went on to win Studney and Murphy an Emmy for Outstanding Music and Lyrics, and it's no wonder. Other tunes come and go; this one stays in your head long after your TV's turned off.

At its heart, however, Reefer Madness: The Movie Musical is simply an extended exercise in silliness: a lampoon fest that just can't seem to launch enough barbs at its inspiration -- possibly the first-ever 109-minute parody of a 67-minute film.

A must-see movie it's not, but a should-see film it is, especially if you've ever seen the original -- or been forced to sit through a propaganda film of similar ilk and accuracy. It's a high school assembly film -- but just the way you'd always wished they'd be.

by Miles O'Dometer
22 July 2006

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