In his brief six years on the national stage, no comic book was more popular than John Belushi. At the height of his fame, in the late 1970s, he even eclipsed Steve Martin and Robin Williams as he starred in the top-rated new phenomenon, “Saturday Night Live” and what was then the highest-grossing motion picture in the world. all-time, “Animal House,” While his band, the Blues Brothers, had the country’s No. 1 album, “Briefcase Full of Blues.”
And yet the wild successes of his life were still partially eclipsed by his shocking and brutal death from a drug overdose at the age of 33 in 1982. Two years later, Bob Woodward made a rare foray into outside politics to release a book on Belushi, “Wired,” a strangely clinical and coldly sinister bestseller that focused on the star’s debauchery final days. It reads like a series of “Behind the Music” episodes transcribed by an accountant. This controversial book still hangs over Belushi’s legacy, and although there have been several attempts to complete its story, including a memoir of his widow who fixes on Woodward, a new film by documentary veteran RJ Cutler ( “The September Issue”) is the first portrait that vividly humanizes Belushi while remaining clear.
The key to the film, “Belushi” (which debuts Sunday on Showtime), lies in its primary sources. In documentaries, they can tell the difference between textbook history and gripping drama. Cutler pays great attention to private photos, childhood videos, old interviews, but especially letters from Belushi, featuring a character much more introspective and sensitive than the frat-boy icon Bluto from “Animal House”, his character. the most famous. Cutler doesn’t look back as much as trying to tell Belushi’s story in the present tense. This has drawbacks, including a missing critical voice to contextualize and explain the star’s aesthetic. But amid an overabundance of trendy comedy documentaries, Cutler’s film stands out as being balanced, enlightening, and compulsively viewable.
On TV, Belushi appeared to be a blue-collar Everyman who “represented messy rooms all over America,” as Steven Spielberg, who cast him in “1941,” once described him. But Belushi was also driven and ambitious, the kind of guy who kept his good reviews in his pocket, mindful of his artistic credibility. A year after “SNL” premiered in 1975, he worried that the series would rely too much on repeated characters (like his samurai and bee appearances) and catchphrases and that he was creating a star system. – all current reviews for the next four decades, although Belushi was the rare star willing to go public while she was there.
Belushi was a TV star who said he disliked TV. Lorne Michaels originally didn’t want to hire him, and it feels like after Belushi’s stint, the balance of power between producer and “Saturday Night Live” star would never be the same again. There is a disturbing scene in the documentary when Belushi’s health deteriorated so much that a doctor told Michaels that if the comedian performed on the show that week, his odds of survival would be 50-50. “I could live with those odds,” Michaels said dryly.
This story previously appeared in a 2005 oral history on Belushi, based on recorded interviews that are also used in the film. In this book, Al Franken points out that while Michaels would later force Chris Farley into rehab, he took a less compassionate approach with Belushi, getting him to a doctor just to “make sure he could work for it.” the show”. We imagine Michaels’ experience with Belushi also informs his handling of Pete Davidson’s mental health issues today.
But reading about it doesn’t have the same impact as hearing Michaels’ jaded voice. It provides a fascinating window into the cruelty – even in a more reckless, reckless age – that helped him build comedy’s toughest juggernaut.
“Belushi” risks slipping into myth-making, presenting the star as a figure a la Dylan, a mid-country rebel who writes poetry and balks at fame. Cutler includes Belushi’s response when a reporter asks him what his father did: a hit man. (He actually ran a restaurant.) But he doesn’t mind her sexism, inconsistency, or self-destructive urges. Cutler tells a heart-wrenching tale of the impact of Belushi’s drug use in a simple litany of photos, showing a husky figure transforming into a puffy, blank-eyed person. There are some surprisingly melancholy moments, like an interview with Gene Shalit in which Belushi seems entirely defeated.
The explanation for his decline is a cleverly structured account of growing isolation, which includes the death of his grandmother followed by the loss of a trusted bodyguard and, more heartbreakingly, his wife’s estrangement. who seems to anticipate his death. (“I’m afraid he will die,” she wrote in a letter.) He also writes about his own self-destruction in blunt terms, portraying himself as a doomed tragic hero. While the Belushi of “Wired” seems distant, a figure being observed from afar, these private letters give a picture of his inner life that brings us closer to him. It’s the difference between a quick comic book sketch and a deep psychological drama.
This rising and falling arc can be so captivating that you can almost excuse how little the documentary seems interested in Belushi as a comedian. But decades after his death, many today are unaware of his work, and this film lacks a sustained rationale for what made him particularly funny. It is a missed opportunity because one could easily find echoes of his life in his comedy. He appeared in the first skit in “SNL” history, falling abruptly to the floor and dying, and in the third episode, his incredible impression of Joe Cocker ended in convulsions. One of his breakthroughs, an appearance on Weekend Update, also ended in a heart attack.
Belushi, who specialized in prints from other charismatic cultural icons like Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, and William Shatner, attacked his roles with visceral and explosive aggression. (The funniest moment in “The Blues Brothers” is when he throatily blames a parent in a fancy restaurant: “How much for the little girl?”) But what made him more that a wild and crazy guy was a wide, tender and romantic streak, especially in the less verbal scenes.
Her physique, both athletic and graceful, was her true gift. My favorite of her sketches is a wordless interlude with Gilda Radner at a laundromat where they meet, see that there is only one machine available, and decide to make their clothes together. It’s a simple, sweet romance unimaginable in today’s “SNL”, carried by a pantomime that’s not just elegant but thoughtful. With the most expressive eyebrows in comedy, Belushi portrayed The Birth of an Idea as well as anyone.
It is tempting to wonder what could have been. If Belushi had lived, would he have been more successful and developed as a dramatic actor like Bill Murray (Dan Aykroyd started writing “Ghostbusters” with Belushi in mind) or did he fade away with a reputation? that deteriorates like Chevy Chase?
Belushi’s latest obscure films, “Continental Divide” and “Neighbors,” provide evidence for either route. They show him trying to stretch and work against his reputation, playing a conventional romantic role and a repressed bob. Both films were minor failures, artistically and commercially, but ambitious and interesting. Importantly, they are reminiscent of what Eddie Murphy, the next “SNL” supernova star, told Playboy when asked what he thought when he heard of Belushi’s death: “What a waste.