Anyone today who’s grown up in the U.S. public school system is likely intimately familiar with the feeling of viewing anti-drug, pro-nationalist, thinly-veiled-propaganda videos, and unlikely to have any desire to repeat the experience. However, when you take a propaganda film so stunningly excessive and inaccurate, it’s earned the title of “one of the worst films ever made,” treat it with a heavy dose of self-awareness, and turn it into a campy musical? That’s a fun-filled viewing experience. That’s “Reefer Madness,” the 2005 movie version of the 1998 stage musical based on the 1936 propaganda film about the evils of marijuana, all sharing the same name. Its history may be slightly convoluted, but its premise is plain and simple hilarity.
“Reefer Madness” stars several acclaimed actors, including Kristen Bell (known for musicals and films including “Wicked,” “The Good Place” and “Frozen”), Alan Cumming (“Emma,” the “Spy Kids” franchise and Shakespearean acting) and SNL alum Ana Gasteyer. It also received the 2005 Emmy Award for Music and Lyrics for the song “Mary Jane/Mary Lane,” as well as Emmy nominations for its makeup and choreography. Yet this hidden gem remains, well, hidden. But it’s every bit as relevant and fun today as it was upon its 2005 release.
The curtain rises on a small Midwestern town circa 1936, where parents of local high schoolers are busy gossiping about a strange and authoritative man referred to as the Lecturer (Alan Cumming). He’s come to town to show a film which he cautions could imperil the health of the faint of heart; “Tell Your Children,” an educational movie about a “deadly assassin” targeting all their children, the new “Public Enemy Number One”—marijuana. (This film-within-a-film framing persists throughout; the Lecturer periodically pauses the film to accuse anyone who questions the veracity of the film of being a communist sympathizer.)
After leading a dramatic, wall-smashing number about the danger weed poses to good Christian America, the Lecturer presses play on the film that makes up the meat of the movie: the story of high school lovebirds Jimmy Harper (Christian Campbell) and Mary Lane (Kristen Bell), who open the movie with a blissful duet about how their relationship is exactly like that of the title characters in “Romeo and Juliet” (a play they’ve just started reading in English class, which they’re sure will “[turn] out real swell” for the lovers involved). There’s just one tiny obstacle standing in their way: Mary needs a good partner for the town’s upcoming swing dance competition, and Jimmy can’t cut a rug to save his life. He’s terrified that if he can’t become the partner she needs to win, she’ll turn down his promise ring and leave him heartbroken.
Enter Jack (Steven Weber), a slick-talking dope dealer looking for customers. With the promise of dance lessons, he lures Jimmy back to the house he shares with his long-suffering girlfriend Mae (Ana Gasteyer) and his small cabal of constantly stoned reprobates (John Kassir, Amy Spanger). In this den of iniquity, Jimmy is pressured into taking his first hit and immediately plunges into a hallucinogenic, orgiastic, jungle-themed song-and-dance sequence.
The change in Jimmy’s behavior is immediate and all-encompassing; he staggers through his day in a cloud of smoke, racked with hallucinations and filled with maniacal glee. He drinks like a sailor, steals from the church collection plate and tries to kiss his girlfriend with tongue! Even a musical number where Jesus (Robert Torti) and his backup singers Joan of Arc (Christine Lakin) and all the angels descend from Heaven to persuade Jimmy to go quit lest he “wind up as Satan’s rent boy” has no effect on the scoffing teen. It isn’t until Jimmy drives a stolen car while high and runs into an old man that he begins to regret his actions and seek to escape the life he’s fallen into. But Jack isn’t done with him yet, and the siren call of pot won’t slacken its grip on Jimmy without a fight…
Without too many spoilers, the rest of the film involves the following messages: Marijuana can transform you into a dominatrix, a cannibal and a murderer, and will see you subjected to tortures personally administered by Satan himself should you have taken even one hit before your last breath. But there is hope; with the power of repentance and a firm belief in the rightness of the president and the American justice system, you can free yourself from your crimes and spend the rest of your days educating others to keep them from taking the same dark path.
Musicals, like propaganda, are by their trope-filled nature excellent vehicles for campy absurdity, and “Reefer Madness” utilizes both aspects to their fullest extent. Whether it’s Jesus taking the stage in a loincloth and golden go-go boots; characters’ unquestioning acceptance that cigarettes, cocaine and heroin are all healthier alternatives to marijuana; townspeople smashing school walls to smithereens as they bellow about how reefer is “stealthy as a socialist” and “deadly as the Democrats”; or FDR miraculously regaining the ability to walk as he commits acts of deus ex machina and drags “Annie” within an inch of its life, every moment of this film is utterly committed to entertainment value. And that kind of pride in performance will never go out of style.