LSD, amphetamines, Quaaludes. Mescaline scored from a girl who cleaned the fish tanks in a bar. Cocaine for the night. It was no wonder The Blues Brothers, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s anarchic 1980 musical road trip, kept swerving off the straight and narrow. Four days of shooting were lost due to Belushi’s druggy incapacity: director John Landis grimly observed that it was fortunate that dark sunglasses were part of Belushi’s outfit. “It wasn’t our intention, but it worked out well that you couldn’t see John’s eyes.”
Nearly 40 years on, the story of Jake and Elwood Blues remains a defining example of the unruly comedy renaissance activated by the launch of Saturday Night Live (SNL) in 1975 and Canada’s Second City Television in 1976. In Wild and Crazy Guys, the film journalist Nick de Semlyen smartly charts the pinballing career paths of the stars of this new comic wave, showing how, like evil Ghostbusters spirits, they improbably possessed mainstream cinema for the next decade.
Hollywood quickly zeroed in on these TV heroes, and the fiercely ambitious comedians — Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and maverick’s maverick Steve Martin among them — brazenly returned its lustful stare. For every Ghostbusters or Beverly Hills Cop, though, there was a raft of ignominious failures (try 1983’s Doctor Detroit, where Aykroyd played a professor masquerading as a metal-handed pimp). De Semlyen details them all with glee.
In his punchy, nonstop narrative, he argues that post-Vietnam, Americans were ready for authority-challenging recklessness after years of Woody Allen neurosis or films featuring “Clint Eastwood and/or an orang-utan”. They needed ghostbusters, frat-house farces and fish-out-of-water screwball — a new golden age of film comedy.
That the book barely mentions Gilda Radner or Jane Curtin, members of SNL’s founding cast, or Goldie Hawn, whose 1980 film Private Benjamin is arguably worthy of more consideration than the camping caper Meatballs (1979), means that the bigger picture feels fuzzy at the edges. Yet it’s in keeping with the bullish times that De Semlyen focuses on this fraternity of comedy manspreaders, each one desperate to mark their territory. Chase, the first to quit SNL for Hollywood, triggered special wrath among his contemporaries. “Medium talent!” Bill Murray yelled at him during a fight backstage at SNL, a killer blow in that gladiatorial atmosphere. Chase’s wife called his freshly purchased sports car “the silver penis” with good reason.
By any standards, it’s a strong selection of oddballs. Murray, nicknamed The Murricane, exited his career at its highest point post-Ghostbusters to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, redirecting lucrative job offers to answerphone. Martin was an obsessive modern art collector and Disneyland-trained juggler. Akyroyd, meanwhile, was fascinated by parapsychology and police badges: an ex-girlfriend said his ultimate fantasy would be committing the perfect crime, then arresting himself for it.
These were men who always seemed to take things too far: commissioned to take a road trip for Rolling Stone, Belushi and Aykroyd freaked out editor Jann Wenner when “Sheriff Leander Perez” from Louisiana (a drawling Aykroyd) phoned up to tell him his comedians had killed someone with their hire car.
Elsewhere, the mayhem was more controlled. Murphy, who conquered SNL before Trading Places (1983) rocketed him into film, restricted his vices to “cars and girls, girls and cars”, as co-star Jamie Lee Curtis observed, yet found his germ phobia surging as fans clamoured for a handshake. Canadian Rick Moranis, still clipping grocery coupons even as he became a Ghostbusters action figure, would retire almost entirely after his wife’s death to look after his children.
Yet this book underlines just how extreme the endless quest for success could be. The pages are littered with toxic flops, ideas inexplicably pushed into production like a sofa into a skip. Imagine Beverly Hills Cop (1984) made with Sylvester Stallone — a real near-miss — and shiver. Chase, once “The Funniest Man in America”, according to New York Magazine, was brought so low by making the comedy Modern Problems (1981), which left him with muscle damage from a misfiring special effect, and Under the Rainbow (1981), a lurid romp about the making of The Wizard of Oz, that he would hide in his garage burning spiders with a lighter.
Almost as toxic as the chemistry, though, was the yearning to be taken seriously. Belushi tried it with the gentle Continental Divide (1981), but takings reflected audience discomfort with a “mild-mannered” Jake Blues. Murray’s wish to play Hunter S Thompson not only turned to box office brass in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), but also nearly killed him when the Houdini-obsessed journalist tied him to a chair and threw him in a swimming pool.
Even full-beam comedy hero Murphy tried to transform Axel Foley into a serious action hero when Beverly Hills Cop III lumbered around in 1994. Murray did cross the credibility streams later, falling in with Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch. Maybe it was the anti-hubris influence of the giant moose head decorating his New York loft — “a sobering reminder that something so big can die”.
Belushi died at Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles in March 1982 after injecting a mixture of heroin and cocaine. His best friend was bereft: “When I saw him come into a room,” Aykroyd said later, “I got the jump you get when you see a beautiful girl.” It would be easy to see Belushi as the big “what if?” hanging over these events, the absent friend pushing his comrades on to greater, increasingly unhinged things. Wild and Crazy Guys ultimately tells a less sentimental story, though, one where art and commerce smash hard against each other, sometimes causing destruction, but sometimes making sparks fly.
Wild and Crazy Guys: How the Comedy Mavericks of the ’80s Changed Hollywood Forever by Nick de Semlyen Picador £18.99 pp336