Director R.J. Cutler‘s documentary “Belushi,” now streaming on Showtime, is more of a companion piece to other books and movies that explore late comedian John Belushi’s short life. Based on a series of phone interviews with the family and friends who knew him best (including Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Penny Marshall, Harold Ramis, Candice Bergen, Jim Belushi, and Lorne Michaels), the film doesn’t shed much new light on what made the funnyman tick. Instead, it’s more like a very personal and intimate eulogy by a group of buddies who sadly reminisce about the past. It also features some striking original animation that helps tell the man’s story through how others saw him, as well as how he saw himself.
Belushi’s extraordinary life and career is explored, from his early days as an immigrant growing up in the Chicago suburbs to his lightning fast rise to stardom on stage and screen. Cutler packs the film with never-before-seen photos, home movies, and handwritten letters to his high school sweetheart (and eventual wife), Judy.
When Belushi’s story is told through his personal writing (including some original poetry), there’s a familiar warmth that makes the documentary rise above others. But the breezy walk through his early years also feels like it glosses over much of a crucial part of Belushi’s life that formed who he was as an adult.
The “Saturday Night Live” portion of the documentary is the most meaty, and Cutler doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the comedian. Belushi’s sexism, insatiable appetite for illegal drugs, troublemaker persona, and searing jealousy with then-star Chevy Chase aren’t swept under the rug.
There was an arrogance that hitched itself to Belushi’s talent, and his emotional demons lit a pathway of destruction that he didn’t have the power to resist. It’s absolutely devastating to watch scenes from “The Blues Brothers” where it’s pointed out how lifeless Belushi was due to his drug abuse. (Warning: you’ll never see that film or “Animal House” the same after watching this documentary).
Not much time is paid to Belushi’s dependence on and preference for illegal substances, but the words of wisdom from one of his best friends, the late Carrie Fisher, sent chills down my spine. In an interview Fisher states that drugs aren’t the problem, but sobriety is — because that’s when the demons that drugs cover up rear their ugly head in your mind. Coupled with images of some truly haunting letters that John wrote Judy shortly before his death, it’s the most powerful section of the documentary.
By: Louisa Moore