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Film Review: “Belushi” Offers Comprehensive Portrait of a Complicated Comic Titan

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 22nd, 2020

Film poster: “Belushi”

Belushi (R.J. Cutler, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.

The late actor/comedian John Belushi (1949-1982) lived but a short life, yet by the end of it had left an indelible mark. Starting first in theater, then improv comedy, he traveled from his native Illinois to New York, courtesy of success in Chicago’s Second City, initially to play a gig for The National Lampoon and then for the then-brand-new Saturday Night Live (SNL), which started in 1975. By the time he died of a combined cocaine/heroin overdose in Los Angeles, he had achieved widespread fame, and some fortune, thanks to SNL and the two hit films in which he subsequently starred, Animal House and The Blues Brothers. For many of that era (and beyond), Belushi became a comic icon, and many mourned his loss. Now, director R.J. Cutler (If I Stay) performs an act of true fan service by offering a solid, comprehensive documentary biopic of the man, entitled simply Belushi. Filled with copious audio interviews, archival footage, movie and television clips, animations and more, the movie avoids the pitfalls of hagiography to deliver a fully three-dimensional portrait, demons and all. It’s the portrait Belushi deserves: complex and quite compelling.

All the interviews – excerpted here, so an opening title card informs us, for the first time – come from research author Tanner Colby conducted for his eponymous 2005 biography. We therefore only hear voices, identified by onscreen lower thirds, rather than see talking heads. This presentation style serves the story well, as it keeps the visual focus squarely on Belushi; attention hound that he was, he would have loved it. And so we plunge head-first into the life and frequent good times of our subject, starting with the pinnacle of fame in 1978 before circling back to his high-school years in Wheaton, Illinois. His wife Judy is a major contributor to the narrative, as she should be, given that she truly knew him best, the two meeting while teens and sticking together on what would be a mostly loving, if often codependent, journey.

John Belushi. Photo Credit: Judy Belushi Pisano/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

Cutler brings in many additional witnesses to Belushi’s pros and cons, including original SNL cast members Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin (but no Bill Murray), writers Tom Schiller and Rosie Shuster, and creator Lorne Michaels, vividly illuminating that period of the show’s history. Not all remember him that fondly, as he was aggressive and, at times, distressingly sexist. Many of his comic bits, including one where he played a Japanese samurai, have not aged all that well, either, but they nevertheless provide insight into the era. Family, friends and other collaborators also join the conversation, from younger brother Jim, many Wheaton pals, Harold Ramis (whom Belushi met at Second City), actress/director Penny Marshall, actress/writer Carrie Fisher and others. More recent SNL alum Bill Hader narrates Belushi’s letters to Judy, which form a diary of sorts of his highs and lows. All in all, the tapestry is woven thoroughly, bright and dark patches included.

From Wheaton to Chicago to New York, Belushi’s rise was meteoric. Before he was 30, he had become a comedic supernova. But like those brightly burning balls of gas, he was soon to explode. The son of poor Albanian immigrants, his need to prove himself as an American success story collided with increasingly large and out-of-control appetites of all kinds, from food to alcohol to drugs. As will all addictions, the fun lasts for a while, until the need for the next fix rushes in on top of the hit preceding it. And then the depression sets in, upping the desire for more self-medication. It’s a sadly common trajectory, and on March 5, 1982, at the ripe old age of 33, Belushi became the latest ill-fated soul to reach the same destination as others had before him.Thanks to Belushi, we understand the why of his appeal and the how of his death, in all their funny and melancholy glory.

John Belushi. Photo Credit: Judy Belushi Pisano/Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

[Belushi is now available for streaming on Showtime.]

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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