In his temporary six years on the nationwide stage, no comedian was extra fashionable than John Belushi. On the top of his fame, within the late 1970s, he eclipsed even Steve Martin and Robin Williams by starring within the top-rated new phenomenon, “Saturday Night time Reside” and what was then the best grossing movie comedy ever, “Animal Home,” whereas his band, the Blues Brothers, had the nation’s No. 1 album, “Briefcase Stuffed with Blues.”
And but, the wild successes of his life have nonetheless been partly overshadowed by his shockingly abrupt dying, of a drug overdose on the age of 33 in 1982. Two years later, Bob Woodward took a uncommon foray exterior politics to launch a ebook about Belushi, “Wired,” an oddly scientific, coldly lurid greatest vendor that targeted on the star’s debauched closing days. It reads like a collection of “Behind the Music” episodes transcribed by an accountant. That controversial book nonetheless looms over Belushi’s legacy, and whereas there have been several makes an attempt to fill out his story, together with a memoir by his widow that fixates on Woodward, a brand new film by the documentary veteran R.J. Cutler (“The September Difficulty”) is the primary portrait that vividly humanizes Belushi whereas remaining cleareyed.
The important thing to the movie, “Belushi” (debuting Sunday on Showtime), is its main sources. In documentaries, they are often the distinction between textbook historical past and gripping drama. Cutler lavishes consideration on personal images, childhood movies, outdated interviews, however most of all, Belushi’s letters, presenting a determine far more introspective and delicate than the frat-boy icon Bluto from “Animal Home,” his most well-known character. Cutler doesn’t look again a lot as attempt to inform Belushi’s story in a gift tense. This has drawbacks, together with a lacking essential voice to contextualize and clarify the star’s aesthetic. However amid a glut of fawning comedy documentaries, Cutler’s film stands out as balanced, illuminating and compulsively watchable.
On tv, Belushi seemed to be a blue collar Everyman who “represented messy bedrooms throughout America,” as Steven Spielberg, who forged him in “1941,” as soon as described him. However Belushi was additionally pushed and bold, the type of man who stored his good evaluations in his pocket, alert to inventive credibility. One 12 months after the 1975 premiere of “S.N.L.,” he apprehensive that the present leaned an excessive amount of on repeated characters (like his samurai and bee appearances) and catchphrases and that it created a star system — all frequent criticisms for the following 4 a long time, albeit Belushi was the uncommon star prepared to go public throughout his time there.
Belushi was a tv star who mentioned he disliked tv. Lorne Michaels initially didn’t need to rent him, and one will get the sense that after Belushi’s stint, the steadiness of energy between producer and star of “Saturday Night time Reside” would by no means be the identical once more. There’s an unsettling scene within the documentary when Belushi’s well being had deteriorated a lot that a health care provider tells Michaels that if the comic performs on the present that week, his probabilities for survival can be 50-50. “I might dwell with these odds,” Michaels says dryly.
This story has appeared earlier than, in a 2005 oral history about Belushi, which relies on taped interviews which are additionally used within the film. In that ebook, Al Franken factors out that whereas Michaels would later pressure Chris Farley to go to rehab, he adopted a much less compassionate strategy with Belushi, getting him medical consideration simply to “be certain that he might perform for the present.” One imagines that Michaels’s expertise with Belushi additionally informs his handling of the mental health issues of Pete Davidson at present.
However studying about this doesn’t have the identical influence as listening to the blasé voice of Michaels. That gives a captivating window into the ruthlessness — even throughout a extra reckless, seat-of-your-pants period — that helped him construct essentially the most resilient juggernaut in comedy.
“Belushi” dangers descending into mythmaking, presenting the star as a Dylan-like determine, a insurgent from the center of the nation who writes poetry and balks at fame. Cutler consists of Belushi’s response when a journalist asks him what his father did: hit man. (He truly ran a restaurant.) But it surely doesn’t shrink back from his sexism, his inconsistency or his self-destructive impulses. Cutler tells a harrowing story of the influence of Belushi’s drug use in a easy litany of images, exhibiting a rakish determine reworking right into a bloated, empty-eyed one. There’s some surprisingly melancholy moments, like an interview with Gene Shalit by which Belushi appears to be like fully defeated.
The reason of his decline is a skillfully structured narrative of accelerating isolation, that features the dying of his grandmother adopted by the lack of a trusted bodyguard and most wrenchingly, the estrangement from his spouse, who appears to anticipate his dying. (“I’m afraid he’ll die,” she writes in a single letter.) He additionally writes about his personal self-destruction in bracingly blunt phrases, coming off as a doomed tragic hero. Whereas the Belushi of “Wired” appears distant, a determine being noticed from a distance, these personal letters give an image of his internal life that brings us nearer to him. It’s the distinction between a fast comedian sketch and a probing psychological drama.
This rise-and-fall arc could be so gripping which you could virtually excuse how little the documentary appears all in favour of Belushi as a comic. However a long time after his dying, many at present don’t know his work, and this film doesn’t current a sustained case for what made him peculiarly humorous. It’s a missed alternative since you might simply discover echoes of his life in his comedy. He appeared within the first sketch within the historical past of “S.N.L.,” abruptly falling on the ground and dying, and within the third episode, his unbelievable impression of Joe Cocker led to convulsions. One among his breakthroughs, an look on Weekend Replace, additionally ended with a coronary heart assault.
Belushi, who specialised in impressions of different charismatic cultural icons like Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando and William Shatner, attacked his roles with a visceral, explosive aggression. (The funniest second in “The Blues Brothers” is when he badgers, in a guttural voice, a father or mother at a elaborate restaurant: “How much for the little girl?”) However what made him greater than only a wild and loopy man was a broad tender, romantic streak, specific in much less verbal scenes.
His physicality, each athletic and sleek, was his actual present. My favourite of his sketches is a wordless interlude with Gilda Radner at a laundromat the place they meet, see there’s only one machine obtainable and determine to do their garments collectively. It’s a easy, candy romance, unimaginable in at present’s “S.N.L.,” carried by pantomime that’s not simply elegant however considerate. With essentially the most expressive eyebrows in comedy, Belushi carried out the delivery of an thought in addition to anybody.
It’s tempting to marvel what might need been. If Belushi had lived, would he have made extra hits and developed as a dramatic actor like Invoice Murray (Dan Aykroyd started writing “Ghostbusters” with Belushi in thoughts) or fade away with a deteriorating popularity like Chevy Chase?
Belushi’s obscure closing motion pictures, “Continental Divide” and “Neighbors,” present proof for both route. They present him making an attempt to stretch and work towards his popularity, taking part in a traditional romantic lead and a repressed sq.. Each motion pictures have been minor failures, artistically and commercially, however bold, fascinating ones. Principally, they call to mind what Eddie Murphy, the following supernova “S.N.L.” star, informed Playboy when requested what he thought upon hearing Belushi died: “What a waste.”