John Belushi’s life story is the subject of the new Showtime documentary Belushi. (Photo: Richard McCaffrey / Courtesy Showtime)
John Belushi died of a drug overdose in 1982, but his comic book spirit lives on as comedy lovers rediscover his work, whether through classic episodes from Saturday Night Live or double drive-in bills from Animal House and The Blues Brothers . However, contemporary reflections on the comedian’s old hits can also be a double-edged (samurai) sword. Even if you laugh at Belushi’s antics, you may also feel a sense of sadness when you notice signs of the personal demons that led to his untimely death.
“It’s hard to see those moments in The Blues Brothers when you can see he’s not doing well,” admits RJ Cutler, director of the new documentary Belushi. “But he was fine for much of his life – much of the comedy you see at Animal House and Saturday Night Live was happening [without drugs]. I think you put a finger on a great complexity and his life was nothing if not complex. “
Belushi played Bluto Blutarsky in the comedy classic Animal House in 1978. (Photo: © Universal / courtesy Everett Collection)
Belushi, which premieres on Showtime on November 22nd, foregoes standard talking heads for a collage of archive news, home videos, vintage scenes from the big and small screen, and new animated segments. All of these images are accompanied by the voices of Belushi’s family, friends and colleagues, which were preserved on tapes by Tanner Colby, who published the oral tradition Belushi: A Biography in 2005.
Colby produced this book in collaboration with Belushi’s widow Judith Belushi Pisano – one of the few people Cutler interviewed for the film. “When I started working on the film, I wanted to get a feel for the stories people had to tell,” he explains. “And I found that most of what everyone had to say was lost in the misty haze of memory, as opposed to immediate and raw. It was like, ‘These are my stories about John Belushi that I have told 10,000 times. I wasn’t looking for that. “
Luckily for Cutler, Colby’s tapes were filled with the kind of raw storytelling he knew would animate his documentary, be it Dan Aykroyd revisiting Belushi’s final days or the late Carrie Fisher, also famous for her drug addiction was up and discussed in frank terms about the excesses of that time. “The tapes had hundreds of hours of raw material. I was so impressed with Jim Belushi talking about his big brother. so moved by Carrie Fischer’s insights into the nature of addiction; and so forced by Dan to speak so beautifully of the nature of his relationship with John. It was all very, very exciting for me. “
The story goes on
Cutler also drew from his own childhood memories of Belushi, which he first heard on the National Lampoon Radio Hour when he was 13 years old. The future documentary filmmaker followed the comedian from Lampoon to SNL when he made his debut in 1975. “Like so many others, my mind was overwhelmed,” he says of the not-ready for prime-time early seasons of NBC’s late-night institution. “I’d never seen anything like it and in the thick of it was this guy, John Belushi. Everyone on the show was funny, but John was the kind of exposed wire to feel drawn to while realizing the danger in the anarchic spirit he portrayed. “
But as we now know, that anarchic spirit was fueled by an occasional drug habit that grew more serious as Belushi’s star rose after the blockbuster hit Animal House. “I’m not saying anything particularly original here, but I think a lot of comedy comes from a place of pain, and it’s not uncommon to find ways to alleviate that pain,” says Cutler. “Many of these men were children in the 1960s when drug use was viewed as a recreational activity, and the effects it has on someone who was addicted were not fully understood. So drug addicts who suffer from addiction did not necessarily know that they were going down a destructive path. “
Belushi’s addiction came to a head at The Blues Brothers, who celebrated their 40th anniversary this summer. When Aykroyd pondered the film four decades later, he told The Guardian that cocaine was ubiquitous on the Chicago set of the film. “At the time, cocaine was a currency. For some of the crew evenings, it was almost like coffee. I’ve never liked it myself, but I didn’t want to monitor other people’s behavior, ”he said, adding that rampant drug use irritated the film’s director, John Landis. “Sometimes he didn’t know if we’d show up for work after the parties.”
Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi in the Blues Brothers. (Photo by: Universal / courtesy Everett Collection)
Landis can be heard in Belushi commenting on the star’s off-screen behavior. “There was a lot of indulgence and excess even though John and Dan were at the height of their lives,” admits Cutler. “The thing about John Belushi is that he kept reinventing himself and trying something new. As a sketch comedian, his greatest successes were at SNL; as a comedic actor, Animal House was his greatest achievement; and as a performance artist, his greatest successes were all manifestations of the Blues Brothers. “
As Cutler’s film shows, after The Blues Brothers, Belushi got clean and tried to reinvent himself by taking on challenging roles in films like the darkly funny neighbor and the romantic comedy Continental Divide. But difficult work experiences, negative reviews, and Hollywood’s indifference to his passion projects all contributed to the relapse that eventually led to his fatal overdose. When asked where he thinks Belushi’s career could have been if he had been alive, Cutler admits that he cannot predict what the comedian’s filmography would be like today. “People always ask, ‘What would Wilt Chamberlin be like if he played basketball today?’ These are fun things to think about, but I’m not exactly sure. I don’t know what John would do now. “
Belushi’s legacy is arguably felt most at SNL, where numerous Not Ready for Primetime players were anointed next in the show’s 46 (and counting) seasons, John Belushi. And some of these artists may have taken the comparison too far. Chris Farley is known to be related to Belushi, channeling both his on-screen anarchic spirit and off-screen excesses. (Farley died of a drug overdose in 1997, fifteen years after Belushi’s death.)
“I don’t want to judge other people and what they may or may not have learned [from John]”Says Cutler of artists like Farley.” I suspect your desire to see yourself in him is a desire to see yourself in one of the greatest comedic geniuses of all time. So I don’t take this movie as a correction: The story The story we are telling is about John, not the lessons others might have learned from him, and John Belushi was John Belushi: a visionary suffering from addiction at a time when the resources now available were not available it’s all about this film. “
Belushi Premiere Sunday, November 22nd at 9pm on Showtime.
Read more from Yahoo Entertainment: