Tanner Colby’s 2012 tome “Belushi: A Biography” united dozens of voices for an exhaustive oral history of John Belushi’s life, and it might seem like the last word on the subject, but R.J. Cutler’s documentary adaptation reignites the appeal by letting you hear them. Both book and movie cover everything from the comedic legend’s goofball antics in an immigrant household to his meteoric “SNL” rise all the way through his tragic death at 33. Cutler’s slick and entertaining tribute condenses the material while giving it new life, building on extensive recordings from Colby’s book to resurrect Belushi’s charm alongside all the archival materials necessary to commune with his irascible spirit — and why it was destined to self-destruct.
A kind of book-on-tape with visual guides, the movie gathers a wide range of Belushi’s inner circle from virtually every stage of his life, though nobody cuts through the myth-making to get at the awful truth like his longtime Second City peers. Belushi brought rock ’n’ roll attitude to improv comedy, but his insuppressible personality led to druggy antics that took him down in the midst of a career peak, and his pal Harold Ramis saw it coming. As we watch Belushi perform a Blues Brothers concert for a massive audience in the movie’s opening moments, Ramis (who died in 2014) recalls two conflicting thoughts: “How great for him,” and “I don’t think he’ll survive this.”
The rest of the movie occupies that delicate space, at once celebrating Belushi’s anarchic energy and showing how it doomed him. Colby’s phone interviews have a tinny quality, as if emanating from the distant past, but the movie surrounds them with more immediate hooks. Blending lively animated sequences with ample photographs and letters, “Belushi” revisits its subject’s complex upbringing in an Albanian household where his performative energy only served to frustrate his father, who wanted the younger Belushi to take over the family restaurant. It’s clear early on that Belushi suppressed his identity crisis — “We all wanted to be American,” brother John explains — by mining crowds for laughs, and it didn’t take him long to find a more inviting audience.
The movie assembles a delightful overview of Belushi’s gradual rise, beginning with his wily improv group West Compass Players and the zany comic energy of Lemmings and the stable community that Second City brought him. If Belushi’s peers seem a bit too worshipful in their recollections, the footage supports their assertion of Belushi as both lovable entertainer and troublemaking buffoon. It’s no surprise that Lorne Michaels, seeking his first “SNL” cast, says he was initially turned off by the actor’s “macho flexing.”
He gave it a shot anyway. “SNL” sagas have been told and retold so many times that “Belushi” risks turning into a tribute reel when it arrives at this stage (and “SNL” documentaries tend to be ruined by their authorized commitments). Cutler navigates the boundaries of the material quite well, by keeping the focus on the unique tension surrounding Belushi’s presence on the set. At first fuming in the shadow of overnight breakout Chevy Chase, Belushi eventually finds his groove as a kind of blue-collar rebel who could show “raw id onstage,” blending abrasive physical humor — sometimes literally destroying the room — with genuine depth that shocked audiences into embracing a new kind of subversive energy. Belushi had the soul of a ‘60s iconoclast and the wild eyes of a man who felt they never should have ended, and the sheer intensity of that combination fired him into movie stardom like a cannonball.
Cutler recaps the “Animal House” phase of Belushi’s career well enough, though it glosses over some of the more troubling aspects of his relationships to other people (including accusations of misogyny on the “SNL” set) and tends to place the blame of failed collaborations at the feet of collaborators who failed to gel with his energy. However, “Belushi” argues that the Blues Brothers epitomized the actor’s potential, giving him and best pal Dan Aykroyd the excuse to go beyond the limitations of the format that made them rich and famous in the first place. As Aykroyd recalls, few people realized that the performances amounted to real musical talent until they experienced it up close.
It’s always fun to sit through a clip reel when the talent quotient is this high, but “Belushi” doesn’t sugarcoat the sadness at the core of the actor’s legacy. This is the closest we may come to Belushi’s own version of events onscreen, as revealing handwritten letters to his wife, Judith, explain the constant inner turmoil that he kept hidden from his fans even as they came at him from every direction. Belushi seemed both obsessed with fame and terrified of it; rather than untangling that contradiction, he resolved it with drugs.
The final passages of “Belushi” unfold with a tragic wallop: Aykroyd and others share their regrets about letting their pal die alone, and the music swells, leaving the sense that Belushi’s fate was such an inevitability he probably should have been committed (Judith stops just short of admitting as much). “Belushi” doesn’t question the industry that propelled its subject to fame, but it helps explain how the same system designed to support unique talent can incinerate it in plain sight. As Belushi wrangles his way across the stage, all wild eyes and sweaty gestures, the movie stops just short of suggesting he was willing to die for our entertainment. But listening to his peers recall the complexity of his struggles, it’s not hard to read between the lines.
“Belushi” was originally scheduled to premiere at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival and was part of the Cannes 2020 selection. It premieres on October 14 at the Chicago International Film Festival and airs on Showtime on November 22.