Review: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (Sundance 2015)
PLOT: A documentary about The National Lampoon, which went from being a fringe humor magazine founded by three Harvard grads to a multimedia conglomerate that conquered Hollywood.
REVIEW: It's crazy to think about how much 'National Lampoon' has changed the comedy landscape over the last forty years or so. While contemporary audiences may only really know the name from the lame DTV-movies it so often brands (none of which have anything to do with the original Lampoon staff), looking back at their seventies heyday the amount of talent involved was staggering. DRUNK STONED BRILLIANT DEAD – as its title suggests – pulls back the curtain and tells the story of the brand's heyday before the excesses of the era snuffed out one of its guiding lights.
The doc starts with founders Doug Kenney and Henry Beard's early days at Harvard, writing for the Tony Harvard Lampoon. Fed up with its stodginess and inspired by the popularity of their bizarre articles, the team up with Matty Simmons, who bankrolls the magazine. With rising talents like the great Michael O'Donoghue, Tony Hendra (who played the manager in THIS IS SPINAL TAP) and more, the magazine quickly becomes a lightning rod for controversy, as well as sales with brilliant stories and cover art sending sales through the roof. The early days are the focus, with time spent of several of the most notorious jokes and issues, such as the infamous cover where a gun is pointed at a dog's head, with the caption reading “if you don't buy this magazine we'll kill this dog.”
From there, the focus shifts to the stage show, LEMMINGS, and their radio show and comedy albums, all of which gave the first big breaks to people like Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray and more. The footage is great, with Belushi's great Joe Cocker being a highlight, and some interesting insight into how Lorne Michaels essentially got the whole first run of 'Saturday Night Live' stars from Lampoon. Much time is also spent on their forays into Hollywood, spearheaded by Doug Kenney, who becomes a mogul after the success of ANIMAL HOUSE.
Of course, with success comes temptation and much of the second half zeroes-in on Kenney's growing addiction to cocaine (which he can even be seen snorting in the background in CADDYSHACK). Kenney – it's argued – is the heart of the Lampoon and once he was out of the picture the argument is made that the brand essentially went kaput (with NATIONAL LAMPOON's VACATION being the last hurrah).
While Bill Murray isn't on board to reminisce, lots of other folks are, like Chevy Chase, Ivan Reitman, and pretty much all the surviving members of the original staff. Douglas Triola's documentary is pretty rock n'roll, aiming for a fun aesthetic that's right in line with the brand. While the seedier parts of the story aren't glossed over, the emphasis here is on fun, and certainly that's exactly what this is. If you're a fan of the Lampoon or – God forbid – don't know what it is, this is a total must-see. It's a blast and it makes me want to rewatch ANIMAL HOUSE stat!