From the 1970s thru the 1990s, there was no hipper, no more outrageous comedy in print than The National Lampoon, the groundbreaking humor magazine that pushed the limits of taste and acceptability – and then pushed them even harder. Parodying everything from politics, religion, entertainment and the whole of American lifestyle, the Lampoon eventually went on to branch into successful radio shows, record albums, live stage revues and movies, including Animal House and National Lampoon's Vacation. The publication launched the careers of legends like John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest and Gilda Radner, who went on to gigs at Saturday Night Live and stardom.
Director Douglas Tirola's documentary about the Lampoon, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, cleverly chronicles its founding by two former Harvard students, its growth, demise and everything in between. Told thru fresh, candid interviews with its key staff, and illustrated with hundreds of outrageous images from the mag itself (along with never-seen interview footage from the magazine's prime), the film gives fans of the Lampoon a unique inside look at what made the magazine tick, who were its key players, and why it was so outrageously successful: a magazine that dared to think what no one was thinking, but wished they had.
Long before 'Animal House' and the 'Vacation' movies, National Lampoon was a humor publication in the vein of Mad and Cracked magazines – only it wasn't at all meant for children or teenagers. Filled with nudity and jokes that were vulgar even by today's standards, it pushed the boundaries of what some would deem acceptable comedy. This is the story of the brand that rose to power, only to ultimately crumble and fade away. Those who loved the National Lampoon of old will enjoy some of the nostalgia that's featured in 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,' but those who know little more than the names of their movies won't care about this came-and-went documentary.
In 1952, Mad debuted. Filled with parody and satire, it went on to become one the most popular and successful humor magazines. As with anything successful, it didn't take long for a knock-off to follow suit. In 1958, Cracked debuted, which also saw a good amount of success. Twelve years later, a group of free-thinkers started their own similar publication, National Lampoon – only theirs was meant for an adult audience that's not easily offended.
National Lampoon immediately grew in popularity. Before long, they had a committed and reputable publisher and a comically genius staff of contributors. They sky was the limit. The only thing keeping them from long-term success was themselves. Egos, condfidence and fame were the only threats.
As the magazine became more popular, the crew evolved the brand into different mediums. Partnering with some of the funniest actors to come out of Second City (Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, John Belushi, Christopher Guest, Gilda Radner and more), they broke into radio shows and vinyl albums, which also resulted in success. Those soon evolved into live performances and touring shows. When those, too, rose in popularity, mainstream executives came a-knockin'. NBC approached the troop with a pitch for a live Saturday night broadcast with Lorne Michaels (which later became 'Saturday Night Live'), but the egos of the National Lampoon team made them think they were above it. They had captured lightning in a bottle, but while they bogged themselves down, the lightning escaped little by little. When one of the founders had a quarter-life crisis, it all started falling apart. They managed to keep things goings, including mainstream success with several successful Hollywood films, but the foundational magazine branch was dead by 1998. This documentary about the rise and fall of a comedic powerhouse should be an interesting one, but it's not.
There are two main problems to 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead.' First and foremost, the film tends to focus more on highlighting the most iconic covers, features, cartoons and controversies than telling the full story of the brand. We learn all about the most popular issues, but it only dabbles on one of the films ('Animal House') and doesn't tell much of the history that follows. Second, the filmmakers assume that all viewers know the names and faces of the magazine's original staff. Names of writers, contributors, artists and designers are tossed around as frequently as penis jokes, which becomes exhausting. The lack of character context makes the dramatic aspect of their stories fall very short. It's hard to be engaged when you have no idea who the stories are about and no sense of who these people were.
Although running just 95 minutes, the flaws of the film cause it to move along at a snails pace. On top that, the doc doesn't even come close to telling the full story of National Lampoon. It spends way too much time telling repetitive antics of the magazine origins and far too little of what followed. As if there wasn't enough footage from the live shows, they are barely touched upon. And as if they couldn't acquire the studio rights to much film footage, hardly any of the National Lampoon movies make it into the story. It would have been nice to see how their films fit into the broader National Lampoon story. Or what, if any, association the new National Lampoons movies have with the original crew. It would have been nice to know about the death of the publication, but that's not even mentioned.
'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of National Lampoon' is flimsy and thin. Instead of telling a complete story, the filmmakers tell the story that they could manage to get footage of. In an attempt to fill time and gain credibility, chunks of interview footage with random celebrities are thrown in there. Kevin Bacon, Chevy Chase, John Landis, Beverly D'Angelo and Ivan Reitman interviews are to be expected, but what of Billy Bob Thornton, John Goodman, Judd Apatow and Meatloaf? They had absolutely nothing to do with National Lampoon. Unless you're an absolute fan of the National Lampoon magazine that's looking for a stroll down memory lane, then there's really nothing here for you.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Magnolia has placed 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' on a Region A BD-50 and slapped it in a blue recycled plastic Elite keepcase. Following an unskippable Magnolia Home Entertainment reel and a commentary disclaimer, skippable trailers for 'Steve Jobs: Man in the Machine,' 'Sunshine Superman,' 'The Wrecking Crew' and 'Best of Enemies' play. Ads for Chideo and AXS.TV can also be skipped over to get you to the main menu faster.
'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' features a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that carries a blend of crisp new interview footage, flawed old footage, low-res scans of aged photos, and cheap low-res animated content. The quality of the newly recorded interview footage is flawless. I don't have a single complaint with it – but compaired to the rest of the film's supporting imagery, it's oddly out of place because of how good it looks. No matter the source material of the archival video or the photos shown, anything not new looks bad.
It's not uncommen to see out-of-sync interlaced video with VHS footage – especially when it's cropped abnormally tight like 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' tends to do – so that aspect of the archival video won't ding the video's rating. It's a nuissance, but it can't be avoided when using this particular type of footage. The bigger pester within the film is its usage of old low-res digitzed photos. Have you ever done a Google image search, found your desired image, only to view it full-screen and realize that it's of a terribly low resolution? That's how the vast majority of the photos appear within this documentary. Instead of using high-res scans of photos, it's like they Google-seached "National Lampoon magazine" and used the several dozen free poor quality photo scans they could find.
On top of that, throughout the movie, several of the magazine's memorable cartoons are brought to life through CG animation. The animation falls victim to the same low-res flaw. As if animated in a trial suite that required a cost for high-def output, all animations looks like they were done in the mid-'90s. Typically simple with black lines and a white backdrop, all lines are jagged and pixelated.
With these quality flaws in abundance, the new high-def interview footage is an out-of-place breath of fresh air.
'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that falls vicitm to some of the same low production value issues of the video quality. Let's start with the dialog. For the most part, the film's dialog consists of interview material. Most of it is clean and clear, but occasionally the vocals have a blown-out quality as if the levels were too high during the recording. Other times, as if the vocals were recorded with low levels, the levels are turned up and an ambient hiss rings out.
Throughout the film, we hear snippets from the radio show and vinyls. Those moments actually feature a great left-right stereo sound. As expected, archival video footage carries some warbly and distorted flaws – but that's to come with age.
The film is strung along with great music tracks, but like the low-res Google photos that tarnished the video quality, some of the songs sound bad. On a few occasions, they sound like they were illegally ripped as MP3s from bad YouTube uploads. It's as if the placeholder tracks were left in because the tin sound of compressed audio is obvious. Once again, a should-be solid aspect is flawed.
In essence, each and every single one of the special features is simply a deleted scene or segment. The disc's special feature star rating is based on the runtime of the collection of deleted scenes and not on the quantity of individually clickable special features listed in the menu.
Somewhere within the history of National Lampoon is great story worth telling and worth watching. Unfortunately, the filmmakers of 'Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead' either couldn't find the story or didn't know how to tell it. I suspect its demise is due to a combination of both. Instead of actually telly the full A-to-Z story of the once-powerful brand, it spends half of its time pointing out funny bits from the magazine and saying, "Hey! Remember how funny this was?" and the other half talking about the personal lives of a few select founders. Names of countless faceless contributors are thrown around as if we, the audience, know who they are - not just within the organization, but personally. Nearly all of the impact is removed from the dramatic recounts because we're clueless as to who most of these peoeple are/were. One big segment is dedicated to telling us about the premature death of contributor, but we don't have a clue as to who this guy was, so there's no pack to the punch. We're barely told about the Hollywood aspect of the brand and are never told about how the magazine ended after nearly 30 years. With audio and video qualities just as messy as the movie itself, the only people who will get anything out of this Blu-ray are the familiy members of those involved and the die-hard fans of the National Lampoon magazine.