Sunday, October 21, 2007
Written by Musgo Del Jefe
In the mid-to-late 70's, there were three comedic acts that every household seemed to own albums from - George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Cheech & Chong. My young friends and I would always sneak a listen with someone acting as our lookout and the others plunked in front of the speakers trying to memorize the acts. It was always Carlin's "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" or Pryor's "Acid" or Cheech & Chong's famous "Dave."
Cheech and Chong's Up In Smoke is being released 29 years later in a new 30th Anniversary package. Over the next six years, Cheech and Chong would follow this film with five more with these same characters. It should serve as a blueprint for today's current crop of comedians, but it really only drives home the point that this success just doesn't happen in today's instant-gratification media.
By the time this movie hit theaters in the fall of 1978, Cheech & Chong had five albums released since 1972. The skits and characters in the film were known to most teenagers and had been honed over hundreds of live performances. In the first scene as Pedro (Cheech Marin) wakes up on a sofa to the sound of "Merrie Melodies" and proceeds to pee in a laundry basket, we are already familiar with the character and the universe he lives in. Anthony (Tommy Chong) is introduced to us in a scene that could be right out of Rebel Without A Cause. He's making a protein shake while being yelled at by his father (Strother Martin), who could be yelling, "What we have here is a failure to communicate," but what he says is the crux of the whole film, "When are you going to get your act together."
The brilliance of this film that most comedians transitioning to film don't get is the simplicity. Cheech and Chong albums had sold millions and people wanted to see these characters. The film is essentially divided into three acts that are just 30-minute connected skits. And to further play into their core audience, the film is about rebellion against authority figures. Even more simply put, it's about drugs, sex, and rock 'n' roll.
Act I takes place mostly in the set piece of Pedro's Low Rider. Pedro picks up now-homeless hippie, Anthony. The adolescent bragging of Cheech - "I can smoke anything" and Chong producing a Quarter Pounder-sized joint let's us know exactly who the intended audience of this film is (although the "Don't Go See It Straight" line in the trailer should be a clue). The boys get high, are "framed" by "the Man" and forced to appear in front of Judge Gladys Dykes. Like all authority figures in the film, the police and the judges are incompetent boobs. There's an excellent deleted scene on the disc with Harry Dean Stanton as a prison guard that's a rare deleted scene that should've been left in the original film.
Act II starts with the boys out of jail and getting ready to practice with their band. First they must "score a lid," so they head off to visit Cheech's cousin, Strawberry (Tom Skeritt). The brilliance of the throwaway line "Pedro's not home" by Strawberry is that it refers back to the "Dave" skit without calling too much attention to itself. "That's not funny," responds Cheech. This extended set ends with incompetent cops, including Sgt. Stedenko (Stacy Keech) from the Los Cochinos album, deporting the band to Tijuana where they need to go to play in a wedding.
Act III has the boys heading back from Tijuana in a van made of marijuana being chased by Sgt. Stedenko and his bumbling comrades. These cops are certainly precursors to the folks of Reno 911 and their humor has aged the best. After losing the van in L.A., Stedenko radios in a "Code 347 - completely lost due to incompetence".
The boys finish the film with a good old-fashioned rebel teen dream of winning a Battle Of The Bands to get a record contract. What better way to give the finger to authority? Well, it's not just a rock fight; it's a punk rock contest. Very timely in 1977, it's a fun timepiece now.
The finale builds up to what most viewers at the time would be looking forward to: everyone gets high and Cheech and Chong play their famous song, "Earache My Eye," as Cheech, playing Pedro, plays another alter ego, Alice Bowie. "Earache" sums up the whole movie with its rebellious lyrics. "My momma talkin' to me tryin' to tell me how to live/ But I don't listen to her 'cause my head is like a sieve," and ends with the famous line, "And I only know three chords!"
The 30th Anniversary edition isn't overdone, but it befits what this movie is. There are a few deleted scenes (although it appears that pretty much everything filmed made it into the final product), a featurette and a fun trip down memory lane with commentary by Cheech and producer/director Lou Adler (the gray-bearded guy you often see sitting next to Jack Nicholson at L.A. Lakers games).
The commentary shows the movie to be a small independent movie made on a small budget with actors that knew their characters from years of work in clubs. Today's comedians don't get years to work their characters. One successful skit on Saturday Night Live might get your character a movie deal and without all the substance, there's the need to build a plot around the shallow character. Cheech and Chong may be playing simple characters, but they know what's funny.
Like the dope that Chong brings out, Up In Smoke "has a little Labrador in it." But there's a pleasure here in watching these pros that I just don't get in today's movie. Part of me wants to invite my boyhood friends over to watch it again. Who's going to be our lookout?