John Belushi was the first celebrity death to seriously impact me. I was thirteen when he passed away on March 5, 1982, and already a massive fan thanks to National Lampoon's Animal House (which my parents allowed me to see on HBO two years prior), The Blues Brothers, and the Saturday Night Live reruns I obsessively watched. He was so full of life and energy that the thought of him being gone seemed impossible. In the years since, I've read books and watched TV specials about him. It didn't seem like there was anything left to learn. Turns out that wasn't true. The Showtime documentary Belushi looks past the comedy star and shows us the man.
Director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) takes a mesmerizing approach. He uses previously-unheard audio interviews from friends, family members, and coworkers that were recorded by journalist Tanner Colby for a book he wrote with Belushi's widow Judy. Those sound bites are laid over archival footage and photos relevant to whatever is being discussed. Belushi's diaries and letters to Judy are read in narration by another SNL star, Bill Hader.
Among those heard in the movie are, of course, Judy and best friend Dan Aykroyd. You also hear Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels, Harold Ramis, and director John Landis. They recount his childhood, early work as a member of Chicago's Second City troupe (where he became an immediate sensation), and years as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player. His lifestyle off the stage is obviously another subject. Perhaps because of the nature of Colby's project – and Judy's consent – everyone speaks very candidly. Some of the stories told are funny, others sad. Significant revelations include the intensity of his professional disappointment when two of his movies, 1941 and Neighbors, were greeted with negative reviews and audience ambivalence.
The journal entries and letters provide the most enlightening parts. We hear Belushi's own words, his own private thoughts. It's clear that he felt a lot of guilt about his drug addiction and the toll it took on his wife. He also had an uncomfortable relationship with fame. On one hand, he loved the spotlight. On the other, he knew the level of his celebrity made it easy to indulge the demons inside. At times, what he pens to Judy is heartbreaking, almost as if he knows being one of the world's biggest comedy stars is going to be his downfall.
Belushi is wise to go down the path it does. The sections on his meteoric rise are fun, but we already know a lot of those details. Hearing how success alternately energized and depressed him, however, is new. In fatally overdosing, much of what's been said about the man posthumously has been related to his hard-partying image. Addicts abuse substances because they're burying pain, though. Made with artistry and compassion, Belushi is an intimate look at an immensely talented guy for whom joy and pain were often intertwined.
I feel like I know John Belushi better after seeing it.
out of four
Belushi is unrated, but contains adult language and drug content. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.