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The "Dangers" of Marijuana

Reefer Madness Through the Years

The original Reefer Madness has a convoluted history. The film began its life as an anti-drug education film called Tell Your Children, purportedly funded by a church group of the same name. The film was meant to convey the “dangers” of marijuana through the fairly hyperbolic story of three high school students whose lives are ruined by coming in contact with the drug. This original intent for the film was probably sincere, if misguided, but that’s not why it has survived to our present day. A quirk of the time period when it was made was that one way to get away with exhibiting more salacious and exploitative films was to present them as if they were moral education films; So, a producer, Dwain Esper, bought the original film of Tell Your Children and added additional footage to make a more sensationalized version of the same story. Esper then released that film around the country under a number of titles, including Reefer Madness. Part of what helped turn the film into the cult object of fascination that it is was this strange tension between the two vastly different motives at work in the film.

Reefer Madness took on a new life when it was rediscovered by advocates for marijuana legalization in the 70s, who found in its ridiculous and over-the-top morality tale, a perfect parody of the anti-drug movement of the time. They started showing the film around the country again, but now with an altogether new motive. In a generation, or so, Reefer Madness evolved from being anti-drug propaganda to being an ostensibly anti-drug exploitation film, before finally being reclaimed as an accidental pro-marijuana satire. And that’s not all, as another generation more, this story would be rediscovered yet again, now undergoing an evolution into the form I’m most interested in: a musical.

Reefer Madness: The Musical (2005) is part of a lineage of satirical and off-kilter horror musicals, and shares more than a few things in common with one of the most well-known examples of the sub-genre: Little Shop of Horrors (1986) Both films began as small stage adaptations of cult films, made possible because the source material happened to be in the public domain. Both productions also developed such an unusually rabid following that they garnered themselves otherwise highly improbable film adaptations. Reefer Madness: The Musical was created by TV writers Dan Studney (Music) and Kevin Murphy (Lyrics & Book, also co-writer of the pretty great Heathers: The Musical), and manages to follow many of the core story beats of the original film, while also producing something much more unambiguously silly. In the original Reefer Madness, the three teens at the heart of the story are Bill Harper, his high school sweetheart, Mary Lane, and her older brother Jimmy. The musical streamlines this by combining the two boy’s characters into one: Jimmy Harper.

The story beats of the musical basically match those of the original film. Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and Mary Lane (Kristen Bell) are newly minted high school sweethearts, but things fall apart for them when Jimmy falls in with the wrong crowd. He meets Jack (Steven Weber), a reefer pusher who hangs around the local Five and Dime to pick up new customers. Jack manages to ensnare Jimmy, talking him into coming back to Jack’s place for a ‘real party’. There, Jimmy meets Mae (Ana Gasteyer), who runs the house for Jack, even though she’s conflicted about the younger clientele Jack’s been bringing in lately. Jimmy also meets Ralph (John Kassir) and Sally (Amy Spanger), a college dropout and a single mother respectively, who hang around the house full-time doing what Jack needs in exchange for reefer. Once at the house, this group peer pressures Jimmy into trying their special kind of cigarette for the first time, and after just one puff, he is completely lost. The rest of the film chronicles Jimmy’s out-of-control marijuana addiction, along with its deadly consequences.

What Studney and Murphy add to that story is how absurd and cartoonishly they color in everything in between these story beats - in one sequence literally turning the film into a cartoon. I don’t want to spoil things for anyone coming to this film for the first time, but while the original film is a small-town drama, the musical adds sequences that take place in Heaven and Hell; There’s a zombie attack; Jesus gets his own solo song; there are additional musical appearances by Uncle Sam, George Washington, The Statue of Liberty, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Greek god Pan, an animated pot brownie, as well as a plate of pasta and clams; And, one of the high points of the film is a Busby Berkeley dance number orgy that takes place in a soundstage marijuana jungle. It’s a pretty wild time.

The film works as much as it does thanks to how perfectly cast it is, most especially an unreal performance by Christian Campbell as Jimmy Harper. Campbell’s dimples, build, and boyish good looks help him believably pass for a high school senior. And similar to someone like Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Campbell is playing a role he had already fully internalized, having been the one to originate it on stage. There are small takes and choices, and inflections throughout that show the benefit of someone that got to feel out their performance in front of a crowd countless times before the cameras rolled. For a role that asks a lot physically and vocally, he makes it look effortless.

Campbell’s other half in the film is Kristen Bell as Mary Lane. Bell also had the benefit of having previously played this role in the 2001 off-Broadway run of the show (an unfortunately timed run that never quite found an audience, opening the week after 9/11). By the time this film came out, Bell had started her run on Veronica Mars, but she’s already undeniable here. Her chemistry with Campbell is through the roof, her sense of physical comedy and timing is already as honed here as it would be on The Good Place, and hearing her sing I can’t help but regret that the only other major musical role that we’ve gotten from her has been Anna from Frozen.

Christian’s and Kristen’s best scene together is their first one. The musical takes a heavy-handed scene from the original Reefer Madness, where the teen sweetheart's tragic end is foreshadowed by them flirting with one another over a copy of Romeo and Juliet, and runs with that idea. In Jimmy and Mary’s first duet, they sing to each as Romeo and Juliet, while clearly demonstrating that neither of them has finished reading the play or has any idea how it ends. The song even mixes in a brief dream sequence with the two of them imagining themselves in period attire, being married by Shakespeare, while he’s also trying to waive them off each time they sing something hopeful that clashes with how the play turns out. This is probably Kevin Murphy’s smartest lyric in the show, giving you everything you need to know about these characters and their relationship with each other, while both drawing out their naivety and still scoring with smart theater kid jokes that shouldn’t work as well as they do.

As great as Campbell and Bell are, the not-so-secret weapon of the film is Alan Cumming as The Lecturer. The musical is structured like the original film, where the framing device is that everything we are initially watching is being presented by a lecturer to a classroom full of parents, as an educational film depicting the tragic events that we’ve been discussing. Cumming is part The Music Man, going from town to town, riling up the locals about the dangers of marijuana, but he also has a bit of menace to him as well, akin to his turn as the emcee in Cabaret. Part con man, part fanatic, he’s almost the true villain of the film. He appears both in the framing sequences and throughout the film in the guise of different characters from around town, narrating the story as it moves along. Cumming is the embodiment of the propagandist impulse in the original film, framing for the audience, and the parents in the classroom, how they are “supposed” to feel about what they are seeing, and underlining how unpatriotic they are if they see it any other way.

The rest of the core cast is wonderful as well. John Kassir is perfectly manic as the burnt-out college student, Ralph, who acts as Jimmy’s partner in crime before suffering his own psychotic break. Stephen Weber is having a ball, hamming it up as the reefer-dealing Jack, playing him like Jimmy Cagney - which is honestly a fair take on what the actor in the original film did with the same role. Amy Spanger doubles as the sexy femme fatale that plays the largest role in luring Jimmy to take his first puff of marijuana, while also getting some of the biggest physical comedy beats in the film as the most burnt-out of all the characters. Spanger also really gets to show off her vocal chops in the finale as Lady Liberty. And Ana Gasteyer wrings more comedy than one would think possible from a character that is trapped in a bad situation by addiction and domestic violence, who also has to function as a key part of the moral center of the film. It’s a role that asks a lot, and Gasteyer kills it as effectively as she ultimately kills Jack.

Looking back at both films, they’re each strange time capsules in their own ways. Comedy generally ages poorly, and there are some gags in Reefer Madness: The Musical that does peg it to a different time, but I do think it mostly holds up. What’s most interesting though, is that fear over marijuana has largely dropped out of public discourse as states around the country have been legalizing it. You’ve been able to buy CBD products for a few years now, and can even get low-dosage THC products pretty easily, too. This debate is basically over. So, in one sense both of these films are artifacts of a bygone time. That said, there is still something timely about Tell Your Children, which is heightened by Reefer Madness, and is made explicit in the finale to Reefer Madness: The Musical - the constant to all three films is that something that never seems to go out of style is fear-mongering about perceived dangers to children as a way of exercising social control; and what makes it especially insidious is that there undeniably will always be actual dangers to children that ought to be controlled, if not eliminated. As long as there are children, there will be those that cast the things that they are personally afraid of as being some threat to the children; As long as there are children, there will be people like Dwain Esper trying to monetize parents’ fears about something happening to them. Here’s hoping though, that we’ll also always have films like Reefer Madness: The Musical to call out and ridicule that kind of corrosive nonsense when it appears.


Damian Masterson

Staff Writer

Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.




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