‘Belushi’ Documentary is an Intimate Portrait of a Hilarious ‘SNL’ Icon

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 * * * *

Edgar Wright Talks with John Landis About ‘Animal House’

Asks for Babs!

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2011 when this screening took place.

Edgar Wright continued his film festival he named The Wright Stuff II at New Beverly Cinema with “Animal House,” and joining him for this screening was special guest John Landis who directed it and succeeded in making what Wright called the first “adult gross out comedy ever.” Landis said director Todd Phillips had already made three movies where he did several shot for shot steals from “Animal House,” and even Wright had to admit he may have subconsciously stolen the taking coat gag for “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” from it as well.

“Animal House” was Landis’ third film, and he made it soon after finishing “Kentucky Fried Movie.” However, he was not the first choice to direct as it was initially offered to John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”), then later to Richard Fleischer (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) and Mike Nichols (“The Graduate”) who all turned it down. Landis said they all passed on it saying, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

Landis was drawn to this project by what he called “a very smart script” written by Doug Kenney, Harold Ramis and Chris Miller. Landis gave a lot of the credit to Kenney who had come to this from the Harvard Lampoon where he was described as being “consistently brilliant.” Kenney wrote scripts called “Laser Orgy Girls” and “Charles Manson In High School,” but then he did “High School Yearbook” which eventually evolved into “Animal House.” The thought was there were so many off-color elements to where it made more sense to set it in college.

“Animal House” marked the film debut of many young actors who would soon become big stars in their own right. It was John Belushi’s first movie, and he was already an established star thanks to “Saturday Night Live.” Tom Hulce was doing the play “Equis” on Broadway when cast, and Bruce McGill was discovered doing Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” As for Karen Allen, she originally drove her friend to audition for it, but she never planned to audition herself. But Landis took one look and told her, “First off, you just lost a friend. Second, we want you in the movie!”

Others from “Saturday Night Live” were considered, but Lorne Michaels was getting pissed about losing more of his cast. While Landis got Belushi despite a crazy schedule which had him available for only three days a week, Michaels refused to let Dan Aykroyd be in it. Then there was Chevy Chase, the show’s first breakout star, who was getting offered everything and decided to do “Foul Play” with Goldie Hawn instead.

The only veterans in “Animal House” were Tim Matheson who started off as a child actor, and Donald Sutherland who was already a big star. All of Sutherland’s scenes were shot in two days, and he was offered $35,000 plus gross points. Sutherland, however, instead took an offer of a flat $50,000 which turned out later to be a mistake as the movie made over $140 million. Everyone else was paid scale except for Belushi, and the horse got $150,000. This led Landis to admit, “I got paid less than the horse!”

The late John Vernon who played Dean Wormer was talked about quite a bit. Vernon played his role so deadly straight, and Landis said Vernon got exactly what the movie was all about. Vernon was also the only one involved with “Animal House” who knew it would be a success as Landis remarked at how he said, “No one realizes what an important movie this will be.”

“Animal House” had a budget of $2.1 million, was shot in 32 days and averaged about 43 setups each day of shooting. Landis said the studio left them alone during the making of it, but they later complained about certain things. They did not like the actors who were chosen and even said, “Why’d you hire John Vernon?! He’s a television actor, a villain in a Clint Eastwood movie!”

The studio also voiced concern over the scene where some of the characters visit a black bar. They feared, Landis quoted them as saying, that “black people will riot” and would “tear up the screen.” But Landis and the producers were adamant of how the scene was told from a white person’s perspective and that it was meant to be subjective. Landis even got Richard Pryor’s take on it, and Pryor said, “I think it’s funny and white people are crazy!”

Studio executives also had an issue with the girls never being shown going home after the party. This led one of them to ask, “How do we know those girls weren’t raped?”

Test screening “Animal House” was an interesting story. The filmmakers took it to Denver where it had audiences screaming with laughter. Landis even taped the audience’s reaction and played it for Belushi over the phone. As a result, Belushi jumped at the chance to attend another screening of it in Atlanta where it ended up being shown to a bunch of what Landis called “drunken booksellers” who sat in stone cold silence throughout. Landis said Belushi came out of it saying the movie needed to be recut, but he was told to shut up by the producers who reminded him he wasn’t around for the Denver preview.

In the end, audiences found “Animal House” to be extremely funny and filled with many laugh-out loud moments, and that’s even if not everybody got the Belushi erection joke. That there was a sold-out audience at the New Beverly is proof of how it continues to stand the test of time. Landis thanked everyone for coming out and said the movie will soon be debuting on Blu-ray, and that all the grain which was taken out while being remastered has been put right back in.