The sheer power of John Belushi as a comedic performer was so incredibly intense that nearly 40 years since his death we’re still trying to process the depths of his genius. Belushi has since become the subject of biopics, books, and documentaries. The latest documentary to explore the life and legacy of John Belushi is from writer-director R.J. Cutler with the simple title of Belushi. Utilizing interviews conducted by John’s wife Judy Belushi, Cutler crafts a biography of Belushi as told by those closest to him. Despite the intimacy of its interview subjects, the curious choice to use old audio interviews instead of any on camera interviews robs much of the more moving testimony from having its fully intended emotional impact. Belushi is an interesting work of biographical documentary filmmaking even if it fall short of entirely reflecting the genius of its subject.
Cutler traces the brief life of John Belushi from his upbringing in a family of Albanian immigrants to his final days at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. When it comes to John’s youth, the commentary mainly comes from two sources – his wife Judy Belushi, whom he met in high school, and his younger brother Jim Belushi. They explain how John was always a force of energy and charisma, as well as the quiet unspoken shame he felt about his immigrant parents. These forces drive John towards finding his calling as a performer, starting his own improv troupe before earning a spot with the famed Second City.
From the stage at Second City a world of opportunity opens up for Belushi, as well as a number of his compatriots. Belushi would move from Second City to the National Lampoon Radio Hour, a spin-off of the famed satirical magazine, where he’d work alongside Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, Christopher Guest, and other soon-to-be well-known names. When National Lampoon Radio Hour producer Michael O’Donoghue departed the show to team with Canadian producer Lorne Michaels for a new weekly sketch comedy show entitled Saturday Night (Live would be added to the title later), O’Donoghue recommended Belushi to Michaels, who passed on the comedic talent before eventually hiring him. Much of the formative story of John Belushi plays out like a typical rising star narrative as a charismatic talent climbs the ladder of success only to find a new world of chemical excess.
On the set of Saturday Night Live, drugs were prevalent and Belushi’s appetites grew as did his fame. One of the more fascinating stories to emerge from the portion of Belushi’s life is the growing rift between him and Chevy Chase, who the show’s initial breakout star. As explained by Dan Aykroyd and Judy Belushi, you can get a sense of the jealousy that drove him to push himself further as a performer which in turn caused him to push himself further as a drug user. After Chase departed the show following only one season, and Belushi soon filled the void and became the show’s main attraction. The swelling of his fame and his appetites didn’t sit well with Michael, and the audio interviews with the SNL mastermind do little to soothe his bristly reputation. As tension at SNL rose, Belushi began eying the exit as he was soon headlining movies such as The Blues Brothers, Animal House, and 1941.
There is something salacious and fascinating about the behind the scenes stories involving John Belushi and his famous co-stars. However, it’s the earnest look at his problems with substance abuse that is most resonant in this documentary. The painful recollections of Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Judy Belushi, and Carrie Fisher, who herself dealt with substance abuse issues, are moving as they recount a friend and loved one engaged in an ongoing struggle, taking one step forward and two steps back. For anyone who has had a friend or loved one battle substance abuse, it’s heartbreaking to hear about Belushi’s desperate attempts to change his ways only to slip up.
We all know how this story ends. At the age of 33, John Belushi died at the Chateau Marmont of a cocaine and heroin overdose. He was working on a script called Noble Rot and his close friend Aykroyd was working on the script that would become Ghostbusters. The tragedy leaves many wonder what could’ve been. But what we do know is what he was, and that was a one-of-a-kind comedic talent, a larger than life figure whose work shall stand the test of time.
Belushi is a fascinating exploration of a life cut short, capturing the highs and lows of a comedy legend. The level of depth provided by the tapes used is significant to understanding this fallen icon, but the fact that all the discussion in the film is from tapes prevents these stories from landing as a heartfelt gut-punch. It’s a crisp, well-presented biography that goes deeper than just the surface, but not deep enough to leave the viewer fully sated.
Belushi screens as part of AFI Fest’s virtual film festival, starting at 12pm PDT on October 17, 2020. Tickets can be found here. Belushi will later premiere on Showtime on November 22, 2020.
Using old audio interviews with those closest to him, Belushi paints a complex portrait of John Belushi, tracing his incredible rise to stardom and his tragic death at the age of 33.