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Film

Why is John Belushi so influential in comedy?

John Belushi was the most curious of characters: He was the quintessential wannabe rocker, but made his imprint on cinema portraying a lethargic frat boy, more determined to watch life than live it. But behind Animal House and The Blues Brothers came the stampede, serenity and singularity of a turbocharged, urgently dressed man determined to live his life to the fullest, never hesitating to let the moment pass, when he had the opportunity to grab at it.

His comedy was based on a series of blinding assaults, many of them penned by Dan Aykroyd, his Canadian Saturday Night Live alum who recognised the fire and fury that existed beyond Belushi’s eyes. He was taut, which likely stemmed from his passion for drumming, which meant that every punchline was measured with precision and poise.

And then there was his penchant for dynamic, regularly infusing scenes with an electric danger, as he showed so wonderfully in Steven Spielberg’s otherwise underwhelming 1941. There, caught between the irony and the temerity of the script, Belushi captured a portrait of a pilot on the verge of combust failure, never quite hitting the glory he has spent his childhood searching for.

He was the ultimate physical comedian, embodying the mania, menace and urgency of the 1970s, through a variety of facial tics and propulsive movements, the comedian invoking the physicality of Oliver Hardy with the graceless balletic of Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. The danger was always at the forefront, as every Belushi character was infected by a carefree attitude that seemed less bothered by the net he had cast for himself, as opposed to the rose-tinted optimism that had soaked into Woody Allen’s wordier works from the era.

At any point, you got the sense that the nefarious Belushi might take the ultimate plunge, and bring the character into more explosive territories, the jagged counterpoints sticking into the rhythms and beats that differentiates a stellar comedian from a half-hearted attempt. Yet all this did was mask a deeply sensitive man, who needed one’s attention except that of his wife’s, Judith.

“The thing I love most about comedy,” Matthew Highton revealed, “is when you see people on stage together and they don’t fully know what the other person is going to do. That’s what you got with Belushi, and I don’t think that would have been seen before, certainly not in the mainstream.”

It’s possible to discern from Belushi’s performance some of the flavours of heavy-metal musicians Keith Moon and Jimmy Page, as a spark of darkness crept up behind him, pushing him to go one step further with his performance, teasing his audience and fellow cast members with another collection of thrills and adrenaline fused performances that stemmed from the gut and soul as much as it did from the legs and brain.

“You had this well-rounded cast [on Saturday Night Live],” comic Nick Helm said, “and then you had this one guy who cut through everyone, and that was Belushi. Like Animal from The Muppets, he was everyone’s favourite.”

Everything Belushi did was shaped by that posturing, meaning that he engaged the eyes, as much as he entertained the intellect. Restless and easily agitated, his performances were brimming with possibility, potential and penance, offering an ambiguity that was giddily exhilarating to watch, no apologies given to the more conservative members of the audience.

The life and tragedy of John Belushi

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He was naturally charismatic- his fellow cast members on The Blues Brothers recalled his generosity-but during the 1970s, abandoned abject cool debonair wit for an explosive routine that matched the thunder of the punk generation, his fierily charged routines the work of a frustrated rock musician searching for a new vessel to express himself.

Belushi inhabited the workings of a punk idol, reaching for absolution and determination, earmarking a new form of physical comedy. It showed that rock and comedy stemmed from the same well for influence, and through his work, he granted other rock stars the chance to make their debut in the world of cinema. There was Prince’s homage to adolescence (Purple Rain), David Bowie’s penchant for flamboyance (Labyrinth), and Levon Helm’s steely role in Coal Miner’s Daughter, all of them furthering the need to see artists veering outside of their comfort zone.

Then, just as Dan Aykroyd pieced the first script for Ghostbusters together, Belushi died, leaving a mark on the 1980s. In a fitting moment of invention, Ackroyd tailored the script to include a nod to his former partner, as a green ghoul invades a hotel, parading the halls with furious abandon and gusto.

It’s Belushi in ghost form, and tellingly Bill Murray gives the ghoul the chance to steal the spotlight. Murray, like everyone, saw the brilliance in Belushi, aiding to help furnish a legacy that ended sooner than anyone could predict.

Stream a clip of Belushi below.