‘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 * * * *

‘Somewhere’ Finds Another Movie Star Lost in Translation

Somewhere movie poster

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

-Robin Williams from “World’s Greatest Dad”

“Somewhere” opens with Stephen Dorff’s character of Johnny Marco driving his Ferrari around in circles in some far-off place. It goes on for a while to the point where some in the audience might say, “ENOUGH ALREADY!!!” However, the length of the scene defines the state Johnny’s life. He’s a movie star with adoring fans, and getting women to sleep with him is easy as cake. But aside from being a successful actor, he looks completely lost compared to everyone else around him. Johnny has no direction in life, and emotion looks like a luxury he can’t afford. Even those beautiful female twins pole dancing in his hotel room at the Chateau Marmont can’t excite or arouse him, and they succeed in making him fall asleep more than anything else. We see him surrounded by so many people who profess to adore him, but all they do is make him feel more isolated from anyone and everybody.

But then one morning Johnny wakes up to find his 11-year old daughter Cleo signing the cast on his arm. From there, we see him come alive as he gets to spend time with the one person who loves him in a way no one else can. With his daughter, he gains some idea of adult responsibility, and a better sense of who he is and what he wants.

Now this may make “Somewhere” sound like a sitcom more than a movie as the story features a father getting closer to his daughter which changes his perspective and all, but it is anything but that. This is Sofia Coppola’s first movie since “Marie Antoinette,” and she makes this one anything but sentimental and manipulative. It’s more like she captures moments between Johnny and Cleo more than she films then, and it makes “Somewhere” feel all the more real.

Many have said “Somewhere” feels like a European film in how slowly it moves, and it is never in a rush to get to the next moment. This is correct, but I like the fact it takes its time. Today’s movies are always rushing from one moment to the next to where we never have enough time to digest everything we witnessed. That Sofia Coppola goes against this trend is very welcome, and it makes for a far more involving movie.

Seeing Cleo accompany her father to Italy for a movie premiere could have been clichéd and corny as hell, but seeing them together makes it feel intimate and far more original than any other filmmaker could have captured. Some will say this is autobiographical, but I believe Sofia when she says that it isn’t. Granted, she definitely has an insider’s view of show business being the daughter of Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola, but this story feels removed from her own life. Her parents never divorced, and she appears to come from a very loving family. Cleo, on the other hand, is a child of divorce, and we know she will suffer more from it that her parents will.

As played by Elle Fanning, Cleo comes across as far more adult than her father and it’s a kick to see her prepare breakfast for him, showing she is easily more mature. She also makes what looks like a sumptuous Eggs Benedict, and anyone who knows me best is aware I order it whenever my parents are in town and take me out to breakfast. Of course, I’m on a diet now, but seeing her cook it so successfully makes me want to head out to the nearest restaurant which serves breakfast all day.

Fanning has been in the shadow of her older sister Dakota who has given strong performances in movies like Steven Spielberg’s “War of The Worlds” and “The Runaways.” I haven’t seen her in anything since “The Door in The Floor” where she acted opposite Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger, but she really comes into her own here with this character who is ever so charming. You never catch her acting here. She just inhabits her character with what seems like relative ease, and watching her come to life as Cleo is a joy.

Dorff is an interesting choice to play Johnny Marco. Best known for his roles in “Backbeat,” “Blade,” and “Cecil B. Demented” among other movies, Dorff does seem to have the “bad boy” image, though not necessarily to Charlie Sheen’s level. In “Somewhere,” he manages to find the right balance between being a nice guy and a thoughtless prick to where we empathize with him more than decry his irresponsibly selfish ways. Like Fanning, Dorff becomes his character more than plays him, and he keeps him from becoming a caricature of a movie star. We find ourselves wanting him to do right by his daughter even if he doesn’t always do so.

The other big character in “Somewhere” is the Chateau Marmont, a hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. It has a lot of history involving movie and rock stars, many of whom have lived here for a time. John Belushi famously died of a drug overdose at the hotel, and his death still haunts all those who were the closest to him. The history of the Chateau Marmont hangs over Johnny Marco’s head as we can’t help but wonder if the hotel will suck him up whole.

Granted, this film does share similarities to Sofia’s “Lost in Translation” as it also involves a movie star who seems emotionally dried up and a young girl who is quickly maturing into a woman. But Bill Murray’s character looks lost because he is in a different country. Johnny Marco, however, looks lost in the country he was born in, so imagine how he feels when he travels overseas. His situation feels especially dire because there doesn’t seem to be a place anymore he can truly call home. Directors in general deal with similar themes throughout all their movies, and Sofia is no exception to that. At least with this one, she has a different way of exploring it than before.

If there is anything which bothered me about “Somewhere,” it’s the conclusion is a little too open-ended. I left the theater with questions over what happened from there, and while change is coming for the characters, it’s not entirely clear what direction that change is going to take. Then again, there’s a lot going on we don’t have all the details to. We never learn why Johnny split with Cleo’s mother, and we are only left with an idea of how it happened. Looking into Cleo’s eyes, she may have a better idea than anybody else of what went down.

Regardless, “Somewhere” is a well thought out film which shows Sofia Coppola to be an excellent director confident in her abilities behind the camera. Looking back, I think it will have more of an effect long after you’ve seen it as it’s not the kind of movie which leaves your consciousness all that quickly.

* * * ½ out of * * * *