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Behind the Cheech & Chong Doc at SXSW: “It Was One of the Conditions of My Parole”

“Cheech and I were on the Paramount lot after we’d done the movie, and we’re kind of trying to figure out what we were going to do next— how we were going to get another movie going,” remembers Tommy Chong of the weeks following the 1978 release of Up in Smoke, the first film from him and comedy partner Cheech Marin. “And Warren Beatty, pulls up in his convertible. He took off his sunglasses and looked at us and he goes, ‘You guys have no idea what you’ve done.’ And we looked at each other like thinking, ‘Oh, what did we do?’ What we did was we pulled a movie out of thin air.”

Up in Smoke, which was made independently by principals with no filmmaking experience, grossed over $100 million at the box office, simultaneously launching and proving the commercial value of the genre, all in one go. It had out-of-competition screenings at the Cannes Film Festival the same year that Françoise Sagan was Jury president and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now premiered. And it established Marin and Chong as comedy powerhouses.

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Now, the radical start and enduring appeal of Cheech and Chong is getting the feature documentary treatment from director David Bushell in Cheech and Chong’s Last Movie. The film counts Chong’s daughter, Robbi Chong, as among its producers.

Bushell, whose producing credits include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Dallas Buyers Club, initially approached Marin and Chong with an idea for a narrative feature. When that reunion film didn’t pan out, Bushell has a realization: “No one had made the definitive documentary.”

In 2019, Bushell interviewed Chong and Marin over the course of three days, each. Five years later, Last Movie will premiere at the SXSW Film and TV Festival taking audiences behind a career that has spanned records, concerts, and films, diving into the mechanics of their comedy (“People don’t understand how smart you have to be to tell a really dumb joke,” posits Marin in Last Movie). Their split in the mid-’80s is also examined, giving audiences an intimate look at the stumbling blocks of a successful creative collaboration. And, yes, there is a lot of marijuana.

Says Marin of participating in the doc, “It was one of the conditions of my parole: Court mandated confession.”

***

In Last Movie, Marin and Chong’s origin stories play like a Mad Libs versions of Wikipedia entries. Audiences see Marin’s time growing up in Watts, the son of a LAPD officer, and later as a pottery-loving university student activist who moved to Canada during the Vietnam draft. The doc goes over Chong’s younger life, growing up half-Chinese in rural Canada, later dropping out of high school to tour as a Motown musician and eventually running a Vancouver strip club where he would also perform improv comedy.

With the film’s archival producer, Bushell cobbled together an impressive amount of imagery, audio, video, and interviews that span Marin and Chong’s individual origins, their coming together in the late ’60s, early successes — “Dave’s not here!” —  and the journey to becoming the “first rock ‘n roll comedians.” Bushell counts 9,000 high-res images collected for the doc. He remembers, “We found stuff in someone’s storage locker that was [an interview] from the late 70s on 16-millimeter film all in garbage bags.” There are other revealing longform interviews with Playboy in the ’80s and one with a pre-Fox News but equally mustached Geraldo Rivera.

“You watch your hairline recede in real time,” jokes Marin of the archival footage.

The director wanted his doc, which is seeking distribution out of the fest, to be a theatrical experience. So, outside of the archival and the portrait interviews traditional to documentary, the production filmed Marin and Chong driving through the desert in a vintage car two hours outside of Los Angeles near Joshua Tree National Park. “That two shot of them in a car is something that people are very familiar with,” says Bushell, alluding to sequences in films like Up in Smoke that see the duo riffing while sharing a joint. “[Audiences] want to see those guys driving in a car!”

Shot over ten days in up to 112 degree heat, and sans script, the desert sequences act as interstitials and transitions between the film’s chapters. The result is Marin and Chong, as well as some key figures in their career like record producer Lou Adler, commenting on their journey as it is playing out for audiences while also performing some of their trademarked improvised banter. The hope for the desert sequences, says Bushell, was “to poke them with a fork, together, and get something that is funny, or get something that’s emotional, or gets something that’s real.”

Hollywood has made a genre of the ultra-sanitized, largely streaming biodocs, where record labels, management companies, estates or even the talent, themselves, act as producers on features that lean more branding exercise than an attempt at non-fiction filmmaking. One of the greatest feats of Cheech and Chong’s Last Movie is the willingness to show the messiness, both professional and interpersonal, that comes with a half-century partnership. Says Bushell, “You put any married couple together and you interview them together or interview them individually, there’s going to be differences of opinion.”

In the doc, Chong and Marin each explain, from their own perspectives, why their comedy partnership broke down in the 1980s, following waning interest at the box office, directorial desires, and increasingly different creative ambitions. Bushell didn’t let Marin and Chong know he would be asking about their break-up(s), reading their biographies to understand each of their views before drilling down on the subject in his interview sessions with the comedians. He says, “I knew that there was this third act engine in airing out the conflict. I give them a lot of credit for going for it.”

“We were definitely not prepared for any of that,” says Chong. “But we’re not prepared for anything, anyway.”

“These are conversations that Tommy and I have had before because we went through a long breakup period and then came back and then broke up again. It happened probably two or three times during our career because it’s hard to maintain a partnership, especially if you have two very creative and hardheaded guys,” offers Marin. “The most important thing for me, that I got out of this process, is that everybody got to say their piece, and nobody died.”

Ultimately, both agree it makes for a better film.

“We’ve heard each of us tell their side of the story and we either agree or don’t agree. Or, we’ve come to the point of ‘Who cares?’” says Marin. Chong says: “When you’re watching something that’s beautiful and safe and comfy, after a while you either fall asleep or you walk out bored.”

Bushell describes Marin and Chong as being “yin-and-yang” when it came to working with them on Cheech and Chong’s Last Movie. This has continued all the way to the film’s premiere.

“I don’t think I’d like to go into a screening like this not having seen it, but it’s very typical Tommy,” says Marin, who happily already pre-screened the doc while Chong decided to wait until the film’s showing in Austin.

The consummate director, Chong knew he would want to make changes if he watched the doc and didn’t agree with a filmmaking of narrative choice. “Dave and Robbi said, ‘Do you want to see a screening?’ I said, ‘Can I change anything?’ And they said, ‘Absolutely not.’ [I said] I’ll just wait and I’ll see it with an audience.” Chong figures, “If I can’t do anything about it, then I just want to enjoy it with the rest of the people.”

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