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Tragedy Plus Time in Showtime's Belushi

Director RJ Cutler's engaging new doc paints an intimate portrait of a singular but fading legend.
  • An image from Belushi. (Photo: Judy Belushi Pisano/Showtime)
    An image from Belushi. (Photo: Judy Belushi Pisano/Showtime)

    By 1984, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward had written three blockbuster books — two about Richard Nixon, whose presidency he helped end, and one about the U.S. Supreme Court. And the book he chose to follow all that with was… Wired, a salacious account of the drug-fueled life and death, at age 33, of the outsized comedian and actor John Belushi.

    The book scored some of the highest sales and some of the worst reviews of Woodward’s career. The star’s widow, Judy Belushi, agreed to be interviewed for the book, and was furious with the result. “The man in Wired is not the man I knew,” she declared. Many friends who also spoke with Woodward accused the author of focusing on Belushi’s drug use and horrible behavior without any context. Others pointed out that the book was factually correct and that Woodward had shone a much-needed light on Hollywood’s drug culture.

    Still, as a recent appraisal fairly notes, “A reader of Wired might wonder if Belushi was ever funny or charming, or why people kept hiring him — at Second City, on Saturday Night Live, for movies like Animal House and The Blues Brothers — if he was so unreliable and unpleasant to work with.” Woodward retreated inside the Beltway and never wrote another non-political book again.

    Watching R.J. Cutler’s ingenious documentary for Showtime, Belushi, I’m reminded why Woodward would risk his reputation to write a celebrity tell-all. To those of us who experienced his meteoric rise in real time, John Belushi was like a gift from God to a nation that needed some untroubled belly laughs. He combined physical talent with a remarkable on-screen vulnerability that you could see in his eyes, even when he was wearing sunglasses.

    Belushi’s superstardom lasted roughly half a decade, from the second season of SNL in 1976 through the Blues Brothers phenomenon in 1980. At his peak, he was the movie industry’s most in-demand actor, one of the music industry’s hottest recording artists, and one-half (with his Blues Brothers soulmate Dan Aykroyd) of the concert world’s hottest live acts. And at a time when entertainers could party hearty, no one performed stronger or longer under the influence than Belushi, until he couldn’t. Aykroyd nicknamed him “America’s Guest” because he could ingratiate himself to perfect strangers, although sometimes just to score a couch he could flop on after an all-night bender.

    Tanner Colby, an excellent reporter and social commentator as well as accomplished comedy writer, offered this fuller portrait of the comedy legend in his 2013 book, Belushi: A Biography. About a decade before that, however, Colby called up dozens of the late comedian’s friends and associates and interviewed them for an oral history that Judy Belushi published.

    For this new film, Cutler has taken those phone interviews and, in effect, set them to music. Using vivid, fluid animation by Robert Valley, a rock-and-roll score, and tons of video clips, personal photos, and home movie footage, Belushi tells the story of his rise and fall through the unvarnished eyewitness accounts of those closest to him — not just Aykroyd and his widow, but professionals who worked with and often adored him as well, including Carrie Fisher, John Landis, Harold Ramis, Mitch Glazer, Lorne Michaels, Richard Zanuck, Anne Beatts, and many more.

    Belushi is a different kind of documentary, and could serve as a model for future efforts involving mid-20th-century figures where the biographer has mostly low-quality video but audio that can be sweetened and turned into a compelling narrative told by Those Who Knew Him (or Her).

    But here’s the thing. It's been more than forty years since Belushi left the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players on SNL, since the Blues Brothers, since Animal House. I went through all of that. They are fond memories. They are also faded memories. To watch a clip reel of Belushi’s SNL highlights on Hulu or YouTube (Peacock has the full shows), or an old film of his, is to be reminded of how comedy tastes change. It is to recall that while some works truly earn their wings as classics, others become relics, signposts of a certain style or approach that once brought a culture to its knees. No one’s to blame for this — whether through an abundance of imitators or the sheer repetition of a person’s few pop-cultural contributions (the “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” speech from Animal House comes to mind), the John Belushi many of us remember wasn’t around long enough to bring out his tender side and make a mid-career Lost in Translation or a late-career On the Rocks like Bill Murray, the most Belushi-like alum of those early years.

    I know the purpose of this film was to leave an impression about the singular force of nature and comedic influencer that was John Belushi. And yet, what I find most powerfully affecting now (in my own middle age) is the Belushi whose limitless potential was wasted on heroin and cocaine. A film can be a tragedy or a comedy, not both. And I’m sorry to say it, but the tragic Belushi is the Belushi of Belushi.  

    Belushi airs on Showtime November 22 at 9:00 PM ET.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Belushi, Showtime, Saturday Night Live, Bob Woodward, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, John Belushi, R.J. Cutler, Tanner Colby