ODE TO ALBANIAN OAK

By CORY FRYE

It's difficult, in retrospect, to define John Belushi. The world that spawned him is gone now, and he himself has been absent longer than he was here, a '60s suburbanite tornado-cum-'70s-phenomenon-turned-'80s-dawn-cautionary-tale, a warning to fellow generational survivors that the party was over and morning had broken hard. Of course, I'm probably talking out of my ass 'cause I was just a kid in that universe, 9 years old when he took his last breath, but I've never stopped thinking about him -- the first to go but the last to truly leave.

The perfect subject for biopic treatment, attempts have been made to tell his story before, most disastrously with the first: Wired (1984), by Washington Post reporter and Watergate hero Bob Woodward (whose Trump books seem kinder to their central disease). Like Belushi, he, too, was a son of Wheaton, Illinois, though older and far more buttoned-down than the body he attempted to inhabit. His Belushi was stilted (he talked like an undercover vice cop), unlovable, compelled to destructive behavior not by demons he actively fought but by an internal ugliness he helplessly nurtured.

An eventual 1989 film adaptation was even worse, stripping the character (future The Shield star Michael Chiklis) of humanity and tossing him into a fucked-up post-mortem A Christmas Carol with Ray Sharkey as his guardian angel/cab/driver/appointed Satan and, weirdly, Woodward (J.T. Walsh) as its actual heart. One scene depicts Belushi on the coroner's slab crying out, "Help me, Woodward!" as the journalist weeps behind a locked door. Penance, perhaps? Writer's guilt? A biographer's attempt at self-rehabilitation? Whatever: It's shit.

Subsequent treatments have all sought to undo Wired's perceived damage. Belushi's wife, Judith Jacklin-Belushi, painted a more lovingly in-depth portrait of her complicated man in Samurai Widow (1990). Later, Tanner Colby was commissioned for an authorized biography (no Woodward blindsiding here), Belushi (2005), a coffee-table oral history with an introduction by Belushi's writing and comedy partner, Dan Aykroyd, anointing the project with a stamp of approval. (I have memories of Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live's 15th anniversary special in 1989, commenting with a satisfied smile that Woodward's sub-supermarket assassination via literature and film would soon be forgotten.)

 

Fifteen years later comes Belushi, the R.J. Cutler (If I Stay, The World According to Dick Cheney)-directed documentary that sheds static talking-head treatment to revel in footage and photographs of its titular whirlwind. It threads its narrative with audio fragments from Colby's early-2000s interviews, allowing us to bask in previously unheard testimonies from such silenced luminaries as actor/writer/director Harold Ramis, improbable National Lampoon impresario Matty Simmons, co-conspirators/confidantes Carrie Fisher and Penny Marshall, and Second City founder Bernie Sahlins. At the time these exchanges were recorded, Belushi was roughly 20 years gone, so everyone ponders with equal parts humor-tinged sorrow, anger, and wistfulness for lost, stupid youth.

If you're a longtime John Belushi fan, you won't learn anything truly illuminating here, though the archival film is priceless. The film follows his life chronologically, from his Wheaton youth as a second-generation Albanian (Dan Aykroyd later called him an "Albanian oak") and popular jock with a passion for theater to his brief troupe the West Compass Trio to his counterculture flowering at Chicago's Second City, where he marked its transition from early-'60s sophistication to the vitriolic danger that birthed the National Lampoon era -- "Eat a bowl of fuck!" was a favorite improvisation, often stunning such fellow performers as Ramis and Joe Flaherty to amused silence. From there he went to the National Lampoon Radio Hour; the Lampoon's historic off-off-Broadway Woodstock parody, Lemmings; then, finally, to Saturday Night Live, where he'd presented himself to producer Lorne Michaels as an anti-television radical while desperately wanting the job anyway.

I can only guess at his appeal: manic, working-class meat-and-potatoes intelligence in a realm then ruled by post-hippie Baby Boomers enjoying the spoils of capitalism. Viewers could identify with Belushi even if they didn't agree with him. His persona was lovably indestructible, a hair-trigger temper over insatiable tastes, both delivered with impeccable comic timing. Aykroyd famously described him as "America's Guest" for his ability to knock on any door and charm his way inside to refrigerators, couches, and drugs.

Yeah, the drugs. He was also America's party made flesh, a vessel for its every vice. This reputation both fueled and destroyed him. It made him a star in 1978's Animal House as John "Bluto" Blutarsky, perennial college student and bottomless booze pit, a part written with his appetites in mind. (Steven Spielberg put him in a plane for 1941 (1979), which warrants barely a mention here because it didn't work; the expensive folly missed what made Belushi lovable.) The documentary skips his bandito turn in Jack Nicholson's Goin' South (1978) or Joan Tewkesbury'Old Boyfriends (1979), which cast him as what he had once sort-of been: a former high-school jock, albeit now matured into an older version.

It doesn't spend as much time with my favorite Belushi movie, Continental Divide (1980), where his newspaper columnist falls for a birding expert (Blair Brown), but it lingers on The Blues Brothers (also 1980), his last blockbuster and first big-screen pairing with Dan Aykroyd in an Aykroyd script dominated by destruction in the town of Chicago, crumbling to one hell of an educational roots-of-rock soundtrack performed by one hell of a band. Also explored in passing: his last film, Neighbors (1981), the troubled John G. Avildsen pic that found Belushi at his lowest ebb, deep in the throes of a returned addiction that ultimately made him pay for his betrayal. The movie itself is a cliff-diving casualty, but Belushi's good playing against type: a straitlaced middle-aged father who exacts revenge on suburban normalcy by tearing the institution down to the punk music his portrayer enjoyed so much.

Belushi presents its central figure as a complicated bundle of a decent, sensitive, talented kid who grew up to become a household name with good intentions but was unraveled by outside expectations of a character he was believed to inhabit. At heart he was a loving husband with a restless spirit and a never-ending identity crisis. His audience -- and, subsequently, his struggles -- seldom allowed him past an existing perception. Finally in league they did him in.

Personally, I'll never forget that date:  Friday, March 5, 1982, and scenes of the L.A. coroner wheeling his body past a mass of onlookers outside the Chateau Marmont, where the 33-year-old succumbed to an overdose of cocaine and heroin mixed into a hellish concoction known as a speedball. (Unsurprisingly, Belushi removes Cathy Smith, the woman who administered the deadly injection and sold her story, from the narrative, making its already tragic conclusion cleaner than the reality's tabloid aftermath. No Robin Williams or Robert De Niro, either.)

He'd very much been a part of my life -- roughly my father's age. Dad was a fan, so I was a fan. Even as a kid, I thought him unstoppable, a loud force for good. That week my fourth grade teacher taught us to create timelines, using Belushi as her example. So I wasn't the only one mourning. 

I thought about him a lot a few years later while listening to the Grateful Dead's "West L.A. Fadeaway," a gallumphing In the Dark (1987) track that ain't "Touch of Grey," but expresses the same sense of promise lost. The Belushi Effect had dulled; he, however, stayed young forever, antics ripe for fresh discovery.

 

"I'm looking for a chateau, 21 rooms but one wll do

I don't want to buy it, I just want to rent it for a minute or two ...

I met an old mistake walking down the street today ... "

The documentary eulogizes Belushi with Belushi himself, performing a Randy Newman song in the Joe Cocker timbre he'd famously mastered for comic effect. Here it's heartbreaking, a deep plunge into weariness:

"Got some whiskey from the barman

Got some cocaine from a friend

I just had to keep on movin'

'Til I was back in your arms again

"Guilty, baby, I'm guilty

And I'll be guilty the rest of my life."

I think about him still. Would his fans have grown up, too, accepted his many dimensions? Would he have silenced his turmoil successfully? Could he have grown into an old man, or was he meant to burn brightest in youth? No matter. I remain glad he was ever here at all.

Belushi is available on Showtime and Amazon Prime.

RECOMMENDED READING

Judith Jacklin-Belushi (Pisano), Samurai Widow

Tanner Colby, Belushi: A Biography

Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live

James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live

Mitchell Glazer, "'Saturday Night''s All Right for Fighting" (Crawdaddy!, June 1977)

Charles M. Young, "John Belushi: Son of Samurai" (Rolling Stone, Aug. 10, 1978)

Randall Sullivan, "John Belushi: Wrong Time, Wrong Place, Wrong People" (Rolling Stone, May 13, 1982)

Roger Ebert, "Why John Belushi Died" (Chicago Sun-Times,  March 7, 1984)