Archive for John Belushi
I’d seen and heard about this famous 1973 Greenwich Village revue hit in the pages of NATIONAL LAMPOON when I read it like cultural contraband in class and the playground (some kids got busted for SWANK or HUSTLER — I got busted for HEAVY METAL and NATIONAL LAMPOON). All I knew from the ads for the album version was that it was a parody of Woodstock — “Woodchuck: Three Days of Peace, Music & Death.” Starring John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, Alice Playten among others, written by Tony Hendra, Doug Kenny and P.J. O’Rourke, the show brilliantly fused forevermore the brilliant improv and caricature skills of Second City to the wicked black satire of the Lampoon that would ultimately lead to “Saturday Night Live.” Although the album exists as a sample of these youngsters at the early top of their game, the show was allegedly videotaped for Home Box Office (yes Virginia, HBO has been around for that long) but I’ve found no evidence of this — although this version consists only of the “Woodchuck” section of the revue. Finally brought forth after decades of dormancy, LEMMINGS: DEAD IN CONCERT 1973 (aka THE NATIONAL LAMPOON TELEVISION SHOW as the wobbly chyron informs us) is a fascinating, hilarious and sometime brilliant takedown of the Woodstock Generation, skewered in that amoral, savage Lampoon style, a potent mixture of elitism and satire. The show’s theme is that the concert is a tribute to 60’s death and nothingness, presided over by a series of skits and bands patterned after familiar pop icons that encourage the audience to kill themselves. John Belushi is the emcee, a scruffy dynamic presence already busting at the seams with smartass energy — I love his warning that “The brown strychnine has been cut with acid.”
Of course, the musical acts are the highlight of the revue, expertly crafted parodies with their own catchy charm, not surprising given that Christopher Guest wrote most of the tunes. “Floyd, Pavlov, Adler and Young” is a deadly take on CSN&Y, featuring Chase on drums, Belushi on bass and Guest on lead guitar. It’s cool to see him and Belushi onstage together. Guest is also absolutely transcendent as a reluctant Bob Dylan (until handed cash) performing “Positively Wall Street” in the best imitation I’ve ever seen, going back and forth from his raspy folk voice to his “Nashville Skyline” twang. Alice Playten (aka “Blix” from Ridley Scott’s LEGEND) won an Obie Award for her work, killing as a proto-Joni Mitchell. Rhonda Coullet folk-rawks as Joan Baez, singing the show’s most outrageous song, the ultimate anthem to guilty liberal rage. Not surprisingly, Belushi busts out his dynamic Joe Cocker to top it all off. By the end, the final band aptly titled “Megadeath” unleashes a sonic blast of cynicism, an eerie harbinger of the 1970’s punk rock EST cocaine apathy to come. The video here is fairly raw and the audience seems pre-selected for the final act of mass suicide, but this is a wonderful cultural artifact, a chance to enjoy a group of bright talents who would soon alter the American comedy landscape. Amazingly, although the show’s original cast recording has been available for years, there’s been no official release for this rare, unique video snapshot of a cynical new generation of satirists bred by National Lampoon.
A week after the debut of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE came another big budget anticipated Christmas release, Steven Spielberg’s 1941. Influenced by ANIMAL HOUSE (John Landis appears as a dusty motorcycle courier), Spielberg wanted to try his own hand at broad raunchy comedy, with a script by proteges Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale with a story by John Milius. Ostensibly based on a true event about a Japanese submarine sighting off the coast off Los Angeles after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the film became the closet thing to a modern all-star IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD epic ever lensed, for bad or good. And judging by the film’s critical and commercial response, some might pick for bad. Even Spielberg acknowledges it’s a mess, but O’ What A Glorious Mess. This is one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled for a movie, from John Belushi to Christopher Lee to Warren Oates to John Candy to Toshiro Mifune to Robert Stack to Dan Ackroyd and beyond (Mickey Rourke, even Lenny and Squiggy plus James Caan). In many ways, it’s Spielberg’s chance to direct legendary character actors like Oates, Lee, Mifune, not to mention Slim Pickens, Elisha Cook Jr. and Dick Miller (somewhere in there) and give them his special cinematic sheen.
Sadly, the manic yelling and shouting that comprise most of the gags highlight the lack of real comedic material, although there are a few laugh-out moments, including the great Joe Flaherty and his shoulder mouse stealing every moment as the USO dance club emcee (“Come back next week and we’ll bring in some negroes for a race riot”); Warren Oates asking for a burst of machine-gun fire (“Nyah nyah nyah nyah!!!”); and the spindly Jerry Lewis-esque Eddie Deezen, who makes us guffaw every time he speaks. Oddly, Ackroyd is terrific here, and Belushi is wasted (in more ways than one from set reports) in a shapeless part as pilot Wild Bill Kelso — amazing too that their one scene together was cut. But Belushi does have a grand final moment.
Overall, 1941 is a visual treat, William Fraker’s expert 70 mm cinematography giving everything his soft-focus glow while A.D. Flowers and Greg Jein’s miniature work is nothing less than spectacular, and the dazzling aerial dogfight down Hollywood Boulevard is a culmination of 60 years of studio special effects — superior in every way to any CGI. I think Spielberg incorporates spfx better than any American director. Although ANIMAL HOUSE hi-jinks weren’t his forte, there’s still things to treasure here, particularly John Williams wonderful, rollicking march. Since Steven Spielberg intended 1941 to be a musical, this jitterbug duel between Treat Williams, Bobby Di Cicco, Dianne Kay and Wendie Jo Sperber remains a beautifully choreographed sequence that ranks as one of the classic dance numbers ever committed to film. Take it away, boys and girls…
One of my treasured tube memories is from 1978, when horror icon Christopher Lee hosted Saturday Night Live (with musical guest Meat Loaf). To my young geek soul, this was some kind of cultural triumph. In its third season, SNL was on a comedy high along with John Belushi, Bill Murray, Gilda Radner, Mr. Bill and the others, including perennial guest host Steve Martin. At that time, NBC’s corporate marketing had nothing to do with guest host or band appearances, so we were spared today’s cookie-cutter roster of mediocre talents pimping their latest disposable wares that constitutes most of SNL’s guests today. Instead, you could see punk band Fear thrash the stage (put on at Belushi’s request) or Devo go through their electronic spasms. In other words, the cast often chose who would play with them.
Dan Ackroyd and Belushi, along with Gilda Radner and Lorraine Newman, were big fans of Christopher Lee and demanded he host an episode. Lee was reluctant, not sure if he was going to make a fool of himself or be made a fool, but he went ahead and hosted what remains the third-highest rated show in SNL history — which I’ve only seen once: on Saturday Night in 1978. I never forgot the terrific “Mr. Death” sketch with Lee playing an apologetic Reaper to Newman’s outraged little girl (she threatened to quit the show unless she was given the part). Here’s what Lee had to say about this odd appearance in an interview with Total Film:
What prompted your decision to move to America in the late ’70s?
I became totally disillusioned with the British film industry. Richard Widmark told me, “You’re wasting your time here. They’ll always be asking you to play the same sort of characters, you’ll get bored and so will the audience. You must come to the States.” So I did, and my life changed. I hosted Saturday Night Live, which was without doubt the most hilarious experience I’ve ever had, because I was working with Belushi, Murray and Aykroyd at the height of their powers. I’ve got a photograph, of which I’m very proud, of me and John Belushi, who signed it, “To Chris, you are the best in the biz, from John Belushi – second best.” SNL was also the most important thing I’ve ever done in my career, because people like Steven Spielberg were in the audience, thinking, “Hang on. This man can be funny!” As a result, Spielberg asked me to do 1941.
I’ve been dying to see that episode again, and now we all can with the release of “Saturday Night Live Season Three” featuring the shows in their uncut glory — not to mention Christopher Lee’s sterling guest-host gig that led to his career resurgence. And led to him being cast as the gay biker in 1980’s underrated comedy, SERIAL.
UPDATE: I just watched the DVD and what a treat. Lee is perfect in a funny take-off on “My Fair Lady” with Dan Akroyd and Gilda Radner as Barbara Wa-Wa, where they start to sing but don’t. After the sketch, you can see Lee kiss Radner on the forehead. And his intro to Meat Loaf is a hoot — ironic that years later Lee would act as the Narrator for a version of “The Rocky Horror Show.” Christopher Lee’s goodbye at the end of the show is rather poignant, as he’s clearly moved. How odd to finally see this after so many years…