02 March 2007

John Belushi

It's amazing to realize that John Belushi died 25 years ago tomorrow--I remember it like it was yesterday. His was the first "celebrity" death that felt like I'd lost a family member or close friend. Although at the time I wasn't able to articulate it as such, I think I revered him so much because in many ways he was the embodiment of my "id", if I can go all pop-psychology (by way of "Forbidden Planet") on you. I was a reserved, typically insecure teen --neither particularly popular but far from unpopular either--who tended to watch from the back and express himself through drawings and short films and the odd corny joke, all the while harbouring a flair for hambone theatrics that were shared periodically, and oh-so-carefully, with my drama class and select friends.

Belushi, by contrast, erupted from the Krell Labs of "National Lampoon" and "NBC's Saturday Night" as a full force gale who invited scorn and ridicule whereas I would go out of my way to avoid it--I couldn't help but marvel at this fearless conduit of unbridled energy and merry prankster who delighted in cartwheeling the face of our notions of "good taste" and "proper" values--and when that didn't work, attacking them outright with a combination of schooled intellect, counterculture outrage, and fleshy hedonism that before this irony-smothered age was a very rare thing. This was not a calculated stage and screen persona--what we got was him in all of his glory and contradictions, until drugs and poor health choices ultimately led to the end of his too-short life at 33, almost a decade younger than I am now.

But how many of us can say that on our 30th birthday, we headlined the number one film in the country ("National Lampoon's Animal House"), the number one album (The Blues Brothers' "A Briefcase Full Of Blues"), and the number one television show ("Saturday Night Live")?

March 1982: I was in high school--a friend and I had just come from an evening screening of "The Border" with Jack Nicholson, a rare "R" rated film we were somehow permitted to see despite the fact that both downtown theatres were quite strict in their enforcement of the Ontario Film Review Boards' then-Draconian policies (some other time, I'll tell you tales of the Mary Brown Years). We stopped at our neighborhood's convenience store and the gal working the counter casually mentioned to us: "That guy you two like died. That comedian". Immediately, and in unison, we responded: "Belushi?". There could be no other...

It's now the stuff of latter-day Hollywood Babylon lore, grave-robbing exposes, Nancy Reagan propaganda, and bad Bob Woodward books: On March 5, 1982, Belushi's body was discovered at The Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard, where he'd been living temporarily. Cathy Smith would later be charged with involuntary manslaughter for administering the fatal drug cocktail of heroin and cocaine. I was that rare Ottawa Valley teen who didn't obsess over booze and dope and refused it when offered, and I was super p*ssed that such a gifted artist threw it all away for something so stupid, but most of all I was sad that I was robbed of whatever future brilliance he no doubt would have given us. I think Belushi would've matured into a powerful dramatic actor, as did his fellow SNLer, Bill Murray (and even Aykroyd).

I suppose to a youngster today, Belushi might seem like a warm-up act for Chris Farley (assuming that even his time here doesn't require us to remember too far back) or more likely Jack Black--the pace of his classic sketches probably lags, his war cries and once-vulgar slapstick now coy and mannered compared to your average Comedy Central offering. His breakthrough film, "Animal House", once regarded as an insidious social menace and the epitome of "low brow", can now air on prime-time television with minimal edits. But I can remember being underwhelmed as a teen when encountering my first Lenny Bruce recording--hardly shocking compared to my Robin Williams and Eddie Murphy LPs-- so I don't blame anyone for responding to Samurai Hotel or the Godfather therapy session or his bang-on Truman Capote impression with anything more than a polite grimace and chuckle.
Of course, "The Blues Brothers" is arguably more popular today than it was when released to negative reviews in 1980, someone (me) is buying the action figures of his characters that are released from time to time, and "To-ga!!!!" is as recognizable a comedic movie moment as Chaplin eating his shoe, perhaps moreso. But I won't hold my breath for a "Neighbours: Come On Down, Earl Keese" Special Edition DVD or a talking "1941"/Wild Bill Kelso from Mezco--not that merchandising is necessary to validate my own personal responses and inextinguishable memories of each and every film in his very special body of work....
Here's a short doc on Belushi courtesy of YouTube...