John Belushi was a complicated person; then again, he wasn’t. His rise to fame was staggering, but short- circuited by raging inner demons that fed off his success. Belushi had an insatiable appetite for all things good and bad.
The facts about his life are well-known, so Belushi adds context and personalizes the man behind the wild eyebrows. Like other icons that died tragically, there is a sad side of Belushi that followed him like a shadow.
The film traces Belushi’s life from the humble beginnings, with emphasis on his early interest in entertaining and his personality that seemed too large for his body. Since the film was made with the cooperation and archives of Belushi’s widow, the film has an intimacy with audio recordings of those close to him, old family film clips, and Belushi’s own letters to his wife through the years.
The film is based on Belushi: A Biography, by Tanner Colby, utilizing interviews done for that book. Director R.J. Cutler, uses a now standard storytelling device, animation, to visually represent key moments in Belushi’s life. Blended with archival film and television appearances, intercut with Belushi’s own letters (the voice provided by Bill Hader), photographs, audio interviews of family and friends, it is a mixed-media trip through Belushi’s trippy world.
Thankfully, there is a treasure trove of never heard material to help tell his story. The audio interviews, mostly done for the Colby book, take you inside the enormous world of Belushi’s personality, his dream of succeeding as an entertainer, his thirst for pushing life to the limit and how fulfillment seemed beyond his grasp. He attained everything he imagined, and then some, but it did not fill whatever the need that drove him to waste away on drugs. The film implies that something in his early family life followed him: his immigrant parents’ search for the American Dream, the emotional coldness in his family, the early need to be heard, the kid that tasted what success brought and how addictive it was. John Belushi was a complicated tapestry of inner forces, a volatile mixture of success and destruction.
At the end, you’ll know more about Belushi, but understand him less. His is really a tragic story as he derailed his own success and happiness. The last 20 minutes or so of the film are sad. His estrangement from his wife Judy, the poor choice of the film Neighbors, his drive to film Noble Rot (a film he had co-written), temporarily living in L.A. around too many drugs and willing enablers, all of these warning lights with no available assistance at his most vulnerable point in his life.
Although a very sad outcome, John Belushi gave his generation much humor and enjoyment. From 1975-1982, he packed a lot of projects into a short time, principally Saturday Night Live, Animal House and The Blues Brothers (film, albums, concerts).
The clips from SNL remind us how outrageous he was, and how different that show was in the beginning. They were making it up as they went, trying not to piss off the network, but trying to piss off everyone in their target range. Belushi’s first year on SNL was frustrating for him; Chevy Chase was the star, and Belushi got the leftovers. After Chase left, Belushi filled that vacuum and became a star, but it came with a cost.
His scenes in Animal House and 1941 are marvelous and conveyed Belushi at his most creative. Belushi got a lot of credit for the entire Blues Brothers act, which to a large degree belonged to Dan Aykroyd, John Landis and the incredible musicians in the band; but Belushi was the piston that drive everything.
Late in his career, Belushi did try to shift gears away from buffoon characters and play more realistic roles. Continental Divide was a light comedy/drama that even had a romance. Not a hit, however it showed Belushi’s versatility. Neighbors could have been a good dark comedy rather than the disaster it was. It fell apart during filming and so did Belushi.
John Belushi, despite being an average looking guy, no genius, rather pudgy, not a great natural singer, that ethnic name – he achieved the American Dream that people in his working-class world only fantasized about. There was nothing average about his drive or his talent. Like the subject in Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”, Belushi was a meteor that burned fiercely before falling to Earth.
I found a lot to like in the documentary, even though it made me wonder, what if?