Tightly rolled with archival images chronicling 50 years of U.S. government anti-pot crusading, “Grass” is one heck of a good trip. The latest feature from seasoned Toronto documaker Ron Mann is a frequently funny, openly partisan look at the war on drugs. Pic’s potent kick comes from Mann’s savvy use of humor, great clips and good music. But “Grass” would have been an even better cinematic high if Mann had looked at the wider issues surrounding pot use. Woody Harrelson’s narration makes no pretense of being anything but an indictment of the long campaign to squash marijuana use, and the monolithic tone of the piece eventually becomes repetitive. “Grass” will likely be a tough sell for U.S. specialty distribs, though it could create a good buzz with college auds. It’s a natural for small-screen specialty-channel programmers around the globe.
Pic opens with vintage educational newsreels on the nefarious effects of smoking the nasty weed. Throughout, clips from government films make the case that grass drives you insane, turns people into homicidal maniacs and sex fiends, leads instantly to heroin use and generally makes you look and act like a bug-eyed, hopped-up lunatic. Early material is a tad dry as pic chronicles the efforts of the federal government to criminalize marijuana, with particular attention paid to relentless crusader Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first drug czar, who made it his lifelong mission to stamp out pot activity in the U.S.
Pace picks up in the ’50s section with the bizarre intersection of anti-Communist hysteria and grass paranoia, and then moves on to depict the major upswing in marijuana use in the ’60s, with footage of Woodstock, soldiers in Vietnam using their rifles as pot pipes and folks marching in the streets to demand decriminalization of the herb. Narration turns upbeat for the first time, relating that a large number of states softened their marijuana laws. But the pessimistic tone returns for the final segment, featuring Ronald Reagan and the renewed vigor of the war on drugs in the ’80s.
Mann and his collaborators have really done their homework: They present an astonishing variety of archival material, everything from Cab Calloway in 1933 singing about “That Funny Reefer Man” to John Lennon singing a protest song at a rally decrying the arrest of White Panther John Sinclair for possession of two joints. Much of the footage sends up the anti-grass evangelists to hilarious effect. But Mann too often relies on pat jokes at the expense of those on the other side of the ideological fence. Docu shows Reagan looking out of it and inarticulate as we hear of scientific findings that pot use can lead to memory loss — not such a droll juxtaposition given Reagan’s later battles with Alzheimer’s. And there are too many clips of on-camera flubs by politicians and TV reporters — juvenile humor that hardly beefs up pic’s dissertation.
This is by no means the definitive docu on the subject; it would be intriguing to see a filmmaker seriously tackle such issues as artists’ use of marijuana and its effect on the creative process. Still, “Grass” is consistently entertaining, often richly comic, and packs a large chunk of info into 80 minutes. The film sports brilliant use of graphics to break up the segments and a fun collection of stoner-themed tunes, notably Brewer and Shipley’s “One Toke Over the Line,” Sly and the Family Stone’s “Want to Take You Higher,” J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine,” Small Faces’ mod gem “Itchykoo Park” and Peter Tosh’s anthem “Legalize It.” Best line in pic is at the end of the final credit block: “No hippies were harmed in the making of this film.”