One of the opening scenes of the documentary “Belushi” features a packed audience at the Hollywood Bowl, waiting for the Blues Brothers to make their grand entrance. There was something about the size of this crowd which blew me away, and their excitement at seeing John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd come onto the stage as Joliet Jake and Elwood Blues was very palpable. When they do finally appear, it’s an exhilarating moment as Belushi in particular looks as though he was on top of the world, and back in 1978 he certainly was. But then we hear a voiceover from the late Harold Ramis who says about Belushi, “Knowing his appetites, I don’t think he’ll survive this.” As we all know, he didn’t.
Like another documentary about another “Saturday Night Live” star who left us way too soon, “Love, Gilda,” “Belushi” is at a disadvantage as we all know what happened to this beloved comedy icon and of how he died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles on March 5, 1982. Several books have been written and several movies were made which detailed his life and death, and Aykroyd once said how many of them were written by “unfeeling, unqualified personnel.” But with “Belushi,” writer and director R.J. Cutler takes the time to look at him not so much as a comedy icon, but as a man who had his passions and loves which deserve more of our attention than his excesses ever did.
Among the most interesting parts of “Belushi” come at the beginning as animation is used to illustrate his life as a young boy in the west side of Chicago. It was a kick to learn how he would sometimes go to homes of his neighbors to tell stories or do performances. Seriously, John was the kind of person William Shakespeare wrote about, and this is summed up perfectly in his line of “all the world’s a stage.”
To learn of John’s troubled relationship with his father, an Albanian immigrant named Adam Anastos Belushi, was a revelation of sorts as I am tempted to think this played a large role in his development not just as an artist, but as a person as well. Adam expected John to take over the family business which was the Fair Oaks Restaurant, but John was determined to become an actor. There is something about the last meeting between these two which seems to linger throughout the documentary to where I could not help but wonder how deeply this affected John throughout his life. Of course, I have to remember I am not a psychotherapist.
One of the benefits of “Belushi” is it contains interviews which are featured as voiceovers throughout. These interviews were conducted by Tanner Colby for his book “Belushi: A Biography,” and in this documentary we get to hear these interviews for the first time. Whether or not the thoughts of Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher or John Landis surprise you in the slightest, I am thankful we get to hear their most specific thoughts about John as they help to fully describe a man who would have truly done anything to get a laugh from everyone and anyone.
But perhaps the most telling addition to “Belushi” is the participation of John’s widow, Judith Belushi-Pisano who shares, among other things, the letters John wrote to her over the years. In those letters, we see how John was hungry for success, that he did not want to be like his father, and how even he knew he was on a path to self-destruction. The one letter which stood out to me the most was when John confessed to Judith of how he didn’t know how to be comfortable with himself in life. This is a man who yearned to connect with other people, and the one thing he craved, success, kept him from do so.
There was a point where John was in the number one movie in America (“Animal House”), had the number one album in the country (the Blues Brothers’ “Briefcase Full of Blues”), and was starring on the television phenomenon “SNL.” While this may have seemed like a tremendous accomplishment, it is almost treated as though it were a death knell for John as he had nowhere to go but down. Lorne Michaels once said drugs did not kill John, fame did. After watching this documentary, I could not agree more.
Watching “Belushi” quickly reminded of other documentaries about other tremendous talents whose lives were cut far too short. There was Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” which gave Amy Winehouse the eulogy she never would have received from any other filmmaker, and we watched as she walked up to the stage in one scene to accept an award, and the applause from the audience kept getting louder and louder to where any cries for help were forever washed away from our collective consciousness. And then there was also “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” which chronicled the life of the Nirvana front man, and the interview with his mother when she realized just how famous Kurt was going to end up being still haunts me as she quickly realizes he will not be able to handle in a healthy way. Like John Belushi, these are talented artists who the song “Shooting Star” by Bad Company was all about, and their lives were quickly swept up in the tsunami of fame.
Granted, there are some problems with “Belushi” as I was hoping this documentary would go a little deeper in certain areas. When it comes to movies like “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” they deserve their own documentaries as their reputations remain very enthralling, but I would have loved to see Cutler examine John’s performance in “Continental Divide” a bit more as this was a movie in which he dared to go in a more serious direction. And yes, there is the issue of Cathy Smith being omitted from here. Cathy gave John the controlled substances which ended his life at the far too young age of 33. I am not saying Cathy deserves to be crucified, but her role in John’s death does deserve some more insight as it may allude to how certain people treat celebrities who are at their most vulnerable.
Regardless, “Belushi” represents the kind of documentary which digs deeper than the average showbiz expose ever does. So many movies on famous people like this one typically just skim the surface and focus on the most controversial moments at the expense of everything else, and this one does not. For that, I am very thankful as I have always been a big fan of John Belushi, and until Cutler’s film, I truly felt I never got to see him as an individual. Regardless of how you feel about him, John Belushi was a human being like the rest of us who craved love and respect, and he should still be with us all these years later.
* * * ½ out of * * * *