For most people, celebrity is fleeting. Sometimes it can take years, decades and even a lifetime to finally make your mark in the pop-culture zeitgeist. And then there’s the kind of people whose burning desire and work ethic seemingly create an overnight success story once they step into the spotlight. But it’s also one which can burn out very quickly. Writer-director R. J. Cutler explores the all-too-short career and cautionary tale of a comic genius in the documentary, Belushi.
It’s hard to discuss John Belushi’s career in hindsight without seeing the omnipresent warning signs of imminent disaster lurking in his every path, en route to becoming a superstar. So, it really is good to have his story told by one of the world’s most talented physical actors, himself, through never-before-broadcast audio recordings and journals. The rest of his story is provided as an oral history via phone interviews, as told by a who’s who of classic comedians, actors and filmmakers who worked with the man (many of which have sadly passed away).
Growing up, Belushi excelled at impressions and performing, so his eventual stops at Second City and National Lampoon shows felt natural. Always the ringleader, by the time the second season began for the “not ready for primetime player,” the cult star became a cultural phenomenon.
“John would have done anything for a laugh, and that carried over into everything else…”
Lovable, tragic and tortured, Belushi was both viewed as an alpha male and an everyman chasing The American Dream. He considered himself a “disciplined anarchist” who had all sorts of bad habits (sexist comments, drug habits, self-destructive behavior) that eventually consumed him. He emulated rock stars — eventually becoming one — and suffered the role’s downfalls. In fact, that’s my favorite part of the film.
His love of music helped create The Blues Brothers skit on Saturday Night Live, but the real reason he created the band with Dan Aykroyd was to keep his close friends together as a substitute for his actual family (which wasn’t very close). They would go on to create a classic movie together, as well as a dive bar where many musicians would drop by to perform. At one point, Belushi was appearing on the most successful comedic TV show at the time (SNL), headlining the most successful movie at the box office (Animal House) and performing in Billboard’s top-charting touring act (The Blues Brothers). In spite of it all, he couldn’t control his addictions and no one could control him.
Belushi really is a deep dive into addiction, pain and tragedy. Once you thought he finally got his act together, it was immediately over. It really is sad to watch talented and tormented people dying way too soon, especially those whom you’ve grown to love so much through the years. Rewatching all of the iconic characters and sketches performed by John is incredibly nostalgic, which is the best part of this film. Through photos, letters and home movies, Belushi details his struggles, as well as his shame in never fully being able to end them (rehab was never really an option).
This documentary film lasts two hours long. That’s two full hours packing in a whole lot of sadness for fans of the performer, which can wipe you out, emotionally, if you’re not fully prepared. It really is tough listening to the ghosts of legends past discussing their previous interactions with John, but they really are important to telling his tale. I may seem to place too much of an emphasis on nostalgia than I do on the current day, but I really felt the pain and agony of this superstar, if that was remotely possible. He was unsure how to relate to people, with the exception of making them laugh. He enjoyed fame, later becoming annoyed by it. All in all, he was human. He was fragile and imperfect, just like us all.
Hollywood may have been his downfall, but his comedy gold will live on forever. If you missed out on seeing the shenanigans of the comedic legend the first time around (who lived from 1949 to 1982), you should definitely check out this emotional Showtime Documentary Film.