One very popular recurring feature of this column has been our running list of songs about cannabis. It’s easy to write, easy to read and consistently useful (which checks damn near every relevant box in this business). We will continue bringing you more of that stuff every few weeks for the rest of my life, but this week let’s look at a couple of movies in which marijuana figures prominently in the plot. They also all involve the music business, which I’m sure Ansliger would appreciate.
The Gene Krupa Story (1959)
Krupa (1909-’73) was the drummer of choice for George Gershwin, and the man responsible not only for the arrangement of the modern drum kit, but (through his friendship with Avedis Zildjian) for naming several of its key components (such as the ride cymbal, crash cymbal, splash cymbal and the hi-hat). His tom-tom work on Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” (1937) may be the iconic sound of the Swing Era—it helped him become the first drummer in history whose fame eclipsed the other band members. He split with Krupa in 1938, and five years later was among the first group of celebrities busted for marijuana possession, a situation that plays for hilariously dramatic effect in the movie but, for realsies, nearly destroyed his career. The movie isn’t good at all, but it’s great, if you know what I mean. It has a lot of great jazz artists (Anita O’Day and Shelly Manne pop up in cameos); its soundtrack was anchored by Krupa himself. Ironically, the doomed and ruthlessly underrated Sal Mineo was chosen to portray Gene Krupa.
The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)
This great movie, based on Nelson Algren’s greater 1949 novel, is not actually about marijuana, but aside from Reefer Madness itself, the classic scared-straight story may be the most notorious film about drug abuse ever made. Ol’ Blue Eyes, aka Frank Sinatra, plays Frankie Machine, a jazz drummer and card dealer nearly destroyed by a morphine addiction, which mirrors many real-life tales from the postwar jazz scene, which led directly to the opiate crisis wrecking our country today. The scene in which Frankie kicks the horse cold-turkey is the best depiction of the process in movie history, due entirely to Sinatra’s brutal yet oddly sexy pathos. The scene feels real because he was actually fighting an addiction of his own at the time—an addiction to Ava Gardner. (Incidentally, Algren also wrote the novel A Walk on the Wild Side, which lent its title to Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed’s most famous song. That nugget alone earns the author a special place in the long, sordid history of drugs in America.)
The Harder They Come (1972)
When then-president George W. Bush sent his twin daughters off to college (where they were famously smoked-out and then snitched-out by Ashton Kutcher, who gets a pass because he married Mila Kunis, etc.), he gave them a care package that allegedly included three CDs: Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Marley’s Legend compilation and the soundtrack to this classic Jimmy Cliff film. (This story confirms what we already knew about Dubya: bad president, great dad.) Exactly one year before “Catch a Fire” made Marley an instant international star, it was Cliff who brought reggae to mainstream America. He stars in the near-universal story of an aspiring musician who starts selling weed to pay the bills; we’ve all known that guy, or even been that guy.