Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

National Lampoon—the magazine and its spinoffs—helped set America’s comedy agenda for the latter part of the 20th century.

In Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon, the main players in the saga—the ones who are still alive—share insight into what made it a big deal in the 70s and beyond. Director Douglas Tirola and his crew have assembled a stylish, quick-moving documentary that is far more than just a stroll down memory lane.

Co-founders Doug Kenney and Henry Beard shopped their idea around to magazine publishers in New York but got no takers until Marty Simmons stepped up to deliver investment money. Kenney and Beard included a provision in the deal that their 25% interest would be bought out in five years. This provision made both men rich at an early age.

The magazine had early troubles. An inconsistent graphic style and a lack of quality advertisers threatened its success. A new graphic designer and an important ad buy from José Cuervo led to increases in subscribers and revenue.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of The National Lampoon details outside projects beyond the magazine: the National Lampoon Radio Dinner comedy album, the stage parody of Woodstock called Lemmings, the National Lampoon Radio Hour and the Animal House and Vacation movies. Interestingly, it is revealed that NBC called to ask if they wanted to participate in the TV show that became Saturday Night Live, but Lampoon passed. (Many of its alumni became part of the SNL cast and crew.)

DSBD features sound bites from magazine staffers as well as persons involved in the Lampoon story, along with those who were influenced by the work: P.J. O’Rourke, Tony Hendra, Chevy Chase, Judd Apatow, John Landis, Tim Matheson, Kevin Bacon and others. Along with these comments Tirola presents a huge sampling of Lampoon content, such as the classic cover featuring the man who led a massacre in Vietnam, U.S. Army Lt. William Calley, as Mad’s Alfred E. Newman with the caption “What, Me Lai?”

DSBD offers tribute to those who fall into the Dead category including Michael O’Donoghue, John Hughes, John Belushi and, especially, Doug Kenney.

I was a National Lampoon subscriber for much of the 70s and am familiar with how outrageous the magazine was. The underlying truth of this shameless material was… it was hilarious! I enjoyed a nostalgic rush revisiting Foto Funnies, Son O’ God comics, the John Lennon parody on Radio Dinner, among other bits.

Henry Beard refers to an “attic” of postwar American culture and says, “we basically looted it.” Lampoon’s success came from ripping holes in popular culture and in the sacred counterculture. Dead Stoned Brilliant Dead chronicles an era of humor whose influence is still strong. Baby Boomers may be the prime audience for the film, but Gen-Xers and Millenials will enjoy seeing what brought us all to where we are today.

Black Mass

If you’ve seen the ads on TV, in print and on the web for Black Mass, you’ve seen Johnny Depp’s latest look. When he appears on the movie screen, with his blue/green eyes, thinning hair and bad front tooth, even if you’ve seen the ads, it’s still a stunning transformation.

Depp gives a mighty performance as James “Whitey” Bulger, a real-life notorious Boston criminal who committed numerous murders, many in a particularly violent manner, along with lesser felonies. For Depp, the role redeems him after several recent misfires. Award nominations will be forthcoming.

But Black Mass is more than just Depp. Director Scott Cooper deftly relates a complex narrative in two hours. The brooding soundtrack by Tom Holkenborg (AKA Junkie XL) complements perfectly the dark story and its gloomy look. The tight script is by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth from the book by Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill.

(Side note: Is it always cloudy in Boston? Based on this film, Mystic River, The Departed, The Town and others, it seems that the city is constantly under overcast skies.)

The story is told in flashbacks, framed by investigator interviews with Bulger lieutenants Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane) and Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons). In 1975, Bulger is a small-time hood. Soon, he forms an “alliance” with FBI agent and fellow “Southie” John Connolly (Joel Edgerton). They trade information. The deal helps the FBI take down Mafia interests in Boston, but also opens up those crime areas to Bulger and his cohorts.

The cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch as Whitey’s brother Billy Bulger, an elected official who somehow escapes being directly connected to his brother’s treachery. Dakota (Fifty Shades of Gray) Johnson plays Bulger’s girlfriend Lindsey, who is mother of Whitey Bulger’s son. The FBI crew includes Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and David Harbour. Corey Stoll is a take charge U.S. attorney who is baffled by the FBI’s coddling of Bulger.

Black Mass has already generated controversy in Boston. Family members of those killed by Bulger are upset that the movie shows his humanity. This week, Depp said of the character: “There’s a man who loves. There’s a man who cries. There’s a lot to the man.” (Yes, and John Wayne Gacy gave great clown shows for the kids.)

Just as there are many sides to Whitey Bulger, there are many aspects of Black Mass beyond its central character. Depp is excellent. So is the rest of the movie.