I think it's safe to say most people have some knowledge when it comes to the funny life and tragic death of John Belushi. While many may instantly recall his legendary performances in "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers," it was his work on "Saturday Night Live" that helped propel him to the heights of the comedy world. With Belushi, appearances are deceiving, and to modern audiences, broad clips of his over-the-top rants on the Weekend Update segment or wild turns as the ubiquitous Samurai might cause some to discredit him for an earlier version of Chris Farley. However, and with respect to the late and very funny Farley, Belushi's comedy sensibilities were incredibly sharp and fearless.
In "The Best of John Belushi" collection, Lionsgate somewhat dishonestly delivers audiences a very enjoyable DVD full of old material from a previous release. Initially I was fooled by the 137 minute runtime, thinking they had doubled the material from the previous release that ran around 70 minutes. Unfortunately, Lionsgate has included all bonus material as part of that 137 minutes and the only new material to the set are 6 bonus sketches that aren't all homeruns. However, marketing shadiness aside, the collection is still a very solid offering of Belushi's diverse talents.
For casual fans of Belushi, all the classic characters are here from a performance of "Soul Man" with Dan Aykroyd under the Blues Brothers persona to two, side-splitting appearances as the Samurai. The first, the classic Samurai Deli takes broad, loud comedy and adds Belushi's penchant for sudden bursts of quiet restraint. However, the second, Samurai Night Fever begins as a straight parody of the dinner sequence from "Saturday Night Fever" From there it goes for a few heavy laughs bringing in that week's host OJ Simpson as the Samurai's brother, before kicking the absurdity into high gear with a dance sequence. The absolute lack of irony involved in both these sketches it what makes them work so well and Belushi's ability to mumble made up Japanese words seals the deal.
Other solid offerings include a basic but funny turn as Beethoven, which always ends up with Belushi as the composer bursting into a modern blues classic once the room is empty. A "Star Trek" parody highlights not so much Belushi's skills, but the wit and fearlessness of the show to take sketches well past modern lengths, turning a basic "Trek" episode into a surreal piece of meta-humor involving a studio executive on a mission shut down the series. Likewise, Belushi's two rants during Weekend Update shouldn't work, but they do. Both are built around the concept of taking a mundane anecdote and letting Belushi engage in logical fallacies and exaggerated details, until he's in an absolute rage. As things get more out of control, the laughs pile up harder.
It's not all gold though, and although no sketch (save for one, which I'll mention in a moment) is completely devoid of humor, some just don't work. Belushi's hilarious impression of Marlon Brando is a one-note joke stretched too thin in a spoof of feel-good therapy sessions. As the thin premise stretches thinner and thinner, even guest star Elliot Gould begins to look increasingly wearier. The same goes for Belushi's equally funny, but pointless stint as an overeating Elizabeth Taylor in Bill Murray's Celebrity Corner segment. As a comic fan, I loved the superhero party sketch, with Belushi playing a supporting role as the Incredible Hulk visiting a party hosted by Superman (Bill Murray) and Lois Lane (Margot Kidder). Unfortunately, a lot of the humor is aimed at comic fans and isn't entirely clever. The sketch also reveals the double-edged nature of the long sketches, with this one just going too far for too little and too obvious of a payoff. Rounding out the lower points is the Don't Look Back in Anger segment; a far too melancholy to be humorous offering, given Belushi's early demise. The simple premise of Belushi as an old man visiting the graves of all his dead co-stars is unintentionally morbid and a little chilling. It's not helped by the now very-poignant handling of Gilda Radner, who was years from her own tragic death, but like Belushi was a talent gone far too soon. There are a few mild smiles to be had a cheap Chevy Chase joke, but the unfortunate circumstances regarding the sketch, neuter the majority of its laughs.
Saving the best for last though, my personal favorite entries involve Belushi, Aykroyd, and Murray as Greek brothers running a restaurant that serves only cheeseburgers and Pepsi and is living proof that a one-note joke can be carried to new heights with the right performers. Finally, what more can one say about the Joe Cocker impression. It's a chilling moment in SNL history that serves as the most succinct encapsulation of the talented force of nature that was John Belushi. Coming out to a microphone in full-on physical comedy mode, Belushi thrashes around with wild facial contortions as the band begins "A Little Help from My Friends." When Belushi opens his mouth, it's not the sound of comedy, but the pitch perfect emulation of Cocker himself. The audience is in stunned silence, only to be reminded to have some fun during some lulls in the singing for Belushi to return to his wild physical comedy routine. Pure genius.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is acceptable for mid-70s live television. The image is far from reference quality with the colors often having a warmer tone than expected and some minor video errors popping up from time to time, but it's watchable and subtracts nothing from the entertainment value.
The Dolby Digital English stereo audio runs the gamut from almost perfectly clear to a bit muddled at times. The dialogue is never fully obscured, although there are some rare instances of distortion and some noticeable drops in volume that are likely a result of the live approach to filming.
The main extras consist of Belushi's original screen test, a useless photo reel, a text-based reproduction of a Rolling Stone article, an 8-minute interview with Belushi and Aykroyd by Gene Shalit, and a roughly 20-minute retrospective titled "An Inside Look" that gets some former SNL members to share their thoughts on SNL and Belushi's career.
The new material consist of six sketches, including two more Samurai segments, two more Weekend Update appearances, a dull crossover of the Coneheads and Fabers (I'm personally biased against the Coneheads, so take that with a grain of salt), and last but not least, one of Belushi's classic impression of Sam Peckinpah, who this time, is directing a romantic comedy. While funny on its own, it takes on a whole new level of laughs to those who know the history of the volatile director.
"The Best of John Belushi" is a solid sampler of the late comedian's seemingly natural ability to entertain audiences. While the 70-minute main running time is a bit short, ultimately something is better than nothing, and the few weak spots are far overshadowed by the good. Lionsgate deserves a scolding for a questionable rehash of an almost entirely old release; so if you have that old disc, hold on to it, the few sketches added aren't worth the price tag. Still as many of the older SNL best ofs are out of print, I'm glad to see this collection out there for old and new fans alike and if you are an SNL fan and/or a Belushi fan, you have no excuse not owning this. Highly Recommended.