The life and career of John Belushi is given the oral history treatment, in the new Showtime documentary simply titled, "Belushi." There is some great archival footage and some behind-the-scenes stories included, even if the film falls short in really letting us understand what made him tick.
In the 70s and early 80s, John Belushi had risen to the very upper echelons of stardom that few others had ever achieved. He was the break-out star at Saturday Night Live (SNL). His performance in the 1978 classic film "National Lampoon's Animal House" is one of the most iconic and unforgettable performances of his generation. And he was one half of The Blues Brothers with his best friend and collaborator Dan Aykroyd, which brought him success not only when their feature-film became a huge hit, but in the music industry, with their debut 1978 album, "Briefcase Full of Blues," went on to sell 3.5 million copies, making it one of the highest-selling blues albums of all-time.
Here he was, this kid from Chicago, a star on the stage and screen, big and small. His death at age 33 of a drug overdose came as a huge shock to his fan-base that loved him, but for anybody that really knew him, his downfall seemed inevitible.
In "Belushi," there are no talking heads whatsoever. Director R.J. Cutler assembles a film that takes us through John's early childhood all the way up to his final days, completely told by those who knew him best. Cutler uses a massive audio library of interviews that were initially recorded by author Tanner Colby, who had been attempting to cobble together a complete oral history of John's professional life. Visually, we're treated to many clips of John's best (and worst) moments on SNL, mixed with photos and home movies that give viewers a glimpse at the man that they never really knew all that well. He was a tormented man, mainly brought on by drug addiction brought on by newfound fame. And in watching and hearing his story, you get the sense that things did not have to be this way.
One of the best aspects of the film is that it feels like it could have been released 10 or 20 years ago...that's because the interviews themselves come from several people who are no longer with us today: Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis and Penny Marshall among them. With involvement from those closest to him professionally, you can tell that this film also gets the blessing of his family and inner circle, as it includes in-depth conversations with Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels, John's famous brother Jim Belushi, and the love of John's life, Judy.
What's frustrating about the documentary, is that you leave it still not quite understanding what exactly went wrong or what specific demons John was dealing with. There's an attempt made, as we get several glimpses at hand-written letters that Belushi had sent to Judy throughout the years (the voice-over of Belushi provided by fellow SNL-alum, Bill Hader). But even still, not much insight is given...or perhaps it's impossible to really know what was going on in John's head.
The documentary almost feels TOO close to Belushi...in that it seems to brush over some things that might seem obvious in other documentary films profiling a tragic life. For one example, the death of Belushi is not given much time at all, and sparse details are included, like how "friend" of Belushi and his supposed dealer, Cathy Smith, actually served 15 months in a California State Prison, after pleading guilty to manslaughter for being the one that injected Belushi with a lethal dose of cocaine and heroin (known as a "speedball"). There's also no mention of John's legacy or influence, which would have been a nice context to wrap into the film.
Still, the memory of John Belushi is bittersweet...it's almost impossible to see his face, or watch any of his performances without feeling a touch of sadness that he was taken from us too soon. On the other hand, there's a reason why he's still well-known, and that they're making documentaries on him nearly 40 years after his death: It's because John Belushi was a rare talent, and one that definitely deserves to be celebrated.
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes.
Featuring: Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher, Penny Marshall, Lorne Michaels, Jim Belushi, Harold Ramis, John Landis, Bruce McGill, Jane Curtin, Don Novello, Joe Flaherty, Ivan Reitman, John Belushi.
Directed by R.J. Cutler ("If I Stay," "A Perfect Candidate").
"Belushi" debuts on Showtime on Sunday, November 22nd, 2020.
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