Saturday, July 3, 2004 - Page R5
It's the late night Reefer Madness picture show
It was as inevitable as a stoner's case of the munchies. First came the anti-pot propaganda flick, then the stage musical, and now the TV-movie musical. ALEXANDRA GILL was on location
By ALEXANDRA GILL
VANCOUVER -- Young Jimmy Harper has descended into Reefer Madness. A few days ago, the clean-cut film character, played by Canadian actor Christian Campbell, was hanging out with his sweetheart at the five-and-dime soda fountain. Now, after a few fatal puffs of the demon weed, he's rifling through the poor box as the cameras roll at New Westminster's Holy Trinity Cathedral, where the new Showtime TV-movie recently wrapped its final scene.
Up on the altar, a wooden statue of Jesus flickers to life, his eyes intently following the deranged punk's furtive moves. The church suddenly fills with smoke as three sparkling archangels in drag blare out a jazzy trumpet fanfare.
Welcome to Club Celestial.
"Listen to Jesus, Jimmy!" a Vegas-bound chorus line of cherubs plead, as the razzle-dazzle Jesus throws off his cloak, picks up a microphone and belts out a deliriously over-the-top rock 'n' roll revival number that makes Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat sound downright flat in comparison.
"Don't let reefer kick your kiester," sings the gyrating "poster boy" for Easter, while two male dancers hoist him in the air.
"Try filling your lungs with God and not Jamaican Gold."
Fortunately, for the sake of future cable audiences, Jimmy pays no heed to this holy roller of an omen. He keeps on "indulging like a Roman," until, just as Jesus A-Go-Go predicted, he ends up as "Satan's rent boy" - a homicidal maniac who cavorts with gutter sluts in Polynesian tiki bars, is sodomized by goat men, kills itty-bitty kitty cats and develops the munchies for human flesh.
Outrageous? Subversively so.
"But it's subversive across the board," says Alan Cumming, the X-Men star who plays a leading role as the moralizing Lecturer who travels from town to town, preaching about the evils of marijuana.
"It offends nearly everybody."
Contrary to expectations, the original stage musical - which swept the Ovation and L.A. Drama Critics Circle awards after its 1999 premiere at the Hudson Backstage Theatre - was not conceived under the influence of pot.
Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney, co-writers and executive producers, began their own descent into musical madness during a long road trip from a film set in Oklahoma to their L.A. home.
"We were listening to a Frank Zappa song about Catholic girls smoking reefer behind the refectory," explains Murphy, decked out in a blond wig and sparkly makeup for a cameo as the trumpet-playing archangels in the Club Celestial scene.
"Dan said 'What about Reefer Madness as a musical?' It was like, why not?"
The original Reefer Madness was an anti-marijuana propaganda film called Tell Your Children, produced by a fundamentalist church group in 1936. Soon after being shot, the rights were purchased by Dwain Esper, a notorious pioneer of the exploitation film genre. Esper changed the title and edited a few campy sex scenes - for educational purposes, of course. And after a brief run in roadhouses and burlesque theatres, it sat dormant for decades. Marijuana advocates rediscovered the film in the early seventies and started showing it at pro-pot festivals and college campuses, where the film's earnest message suddenly seemed outrageously funny when viewed through a haze of smoke.
In the light of day, however, the 67-minute film becomes a bit of a drag.
"It's become a cult classic, almost by word of mouth," Murphy says. "But anyone who actually watches the whole thing is incredibly bored by the end. What we did was take some of the original ideas and explode them."
In the old film, for instance, there's a small party going on when Jimmy gets high. In this film, when Jimmy takes his first puff, the walls break down and the room transforms into a wild orgy scene where a lascivious goat man in nipple chains and horns (also played by Cumming) rises from a volcano and attempts to have his way with Jimmy.
For all its campy craziness, this musical isn't really about marijuana at all. It's actually an anti-propaganda film that savagely deflowers authority figures that wrap their agendas in the American flag.
And although the producers decided against adding George W. Bush to one satirical song-and-dance number that already included George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty, they still believe the movie is particularly relevant today.
"The right-wing scare tactics being used right now to spread unprovoked war all over the world are no different than the scare tactics used back in 1936 when Randolph Hearst waged war on marijuana to protect his paper mills from the hemp trade," says John Kassir, who plays Ralph, a psychotic reefer-smoking zombie.
"The only difference now is that the U.S. is waging unprovoked war in the Middle East to protect our oil rights."
The message certainly struck a chord in L.A., where it ran for 150 performances, broke a record for the city's longest-running show of its size and earned a cult audience, which returned again and again to recite every lyric and line of dialogue (ö la Rocky Horror).
But despite critical acclaim in New York, the show died a quick death when it opened on Sept. 15, less than a week after terrorists struck the World Trade Center.
"The theatre was right inside the Zone," explains Campbell, the younger brother of Canadian actress Neve Campbell, who also has a role as the owner of the five-and-dime teen hangout.
"The war drums were beating and everything was still smouldering. It was just not the right time to be critical of America."
Although the tides have obviously turned, given the runaway success of Michael Moore's anti-Bush documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, Studney doubts Reefer Madness would have found a home anywhere else but on cable TV.
Reefer Madness was actually the first Showtime movie approved by Robert Greenblatt, after the former producer of HBO's Six Feet Under became the new entertainment president of that cable channel's prime competitor.
Greenblatt has spent the past year giving HBO a run for its audience by notching up Showtime's edge factor. Last November, he rescued The Reagans when the controversial miniseries was deemed too controversial for its sister network Viacom Inc. And after a mere two episodes of The L Word had aired, he gave the nod to a second season of the Vancouver-shot lesbian drama series.
"He's a visionary," says Murphy. "And he's going to look like a rock star for doing this."
For all its sex, drugs, high camp and politics, Reefer Madness is still a musical. And as such, it's meant to entertain, not hit you over the head with polemics.
Cumming says its musical form is what makes Reefer Madness so cleverly subversive. "It's all quite sweet sounding. It says all it wants to say, but you can still enjoy it.
"Look," he says, pointing to Studney twirling around the set in his flowing angel robe and sparkles.
"It's just so perfect. Who could scoff at that?"