On John Belushi’s 30th birthday in January 1979, he was on the No. 1 comedy TV show in America (Saturday Night Live), was starring in the No. 1 comedy movie (Animal House), and had the No. 1 album in the country with the live Blues Brothers release Briefcase Full Of Blues. That would be a lot of success for anyone to handle, but for someone with Belushi’s addiction issues, it became downright dangerous. In the new Showtime documentary Belushi, his late longtime friend Harold Ramis reflects on watching The Blues Brothers play for a crowd of 7,000 people at the Universal Amphitheatre: “My first thought was, how great for him. My second thought was, knowing his appetites, I don’t think he’ll survive this.”
Ramis’ thoughts were prophetic: Belushi died in 1982 from an overdose of cocaine and heroin. In less than a decade, he had exploded onto the scene and altered the entire comedy landscape, creating not only iconic SNL characters but also appearing in classic movies like Animal House and The Blues Brothers. He was outwardly expressive, but kept his internal side hidden—a private life previously explored in Bob Woodward’s 1984 book Wired: The Short Life And Fast Times Of John Belushi and its 1989 film adaptation. But both put the focus on his drug use, and Woodward’s book was criticized by those closest to the comedian. “Exploitation, pulp trash,” fellow Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd described it.
Belushi almost leans too hard in the other direction: a mostly thornless depiction of an unforgettable personality. Writer/director R.J. Cutler (director of A Perfect Candidate and The September Issue, and producer of The War Room) worked closely with Belushi’s widow Judy Belushi Pisano—who had already written two books about her life with Belushi, her high-school sweetheart. The co-author of one of those books, Tanner Colby, provides many of the interviews with Belushi’s friends and contemporaries used here—those tapes are to thank for posthumous appearances by Ramis, Carrie Fisher, and Penny Marshall. It’s hard not to choke up when Aykroyd remembers, “We fell in love the moment we met.”
Cutler wisely lets those voices tell the story, with no overarching narrator; the closest is SNL alum Bill Hader doing a spookily spot-on job of mimicking Belushi’s voice to read his letters, often aided by effective, starkly drawn animation. Those letters range from sweet to sad: From a period spent doing summer stock, Belushi writes to Judy, “Directions for going out on dates with anyone but John B.… If he tries to kiss you, kill him.” Later, he tells his future wife, “I think you’re the only person who really understands me.” This writing offers seldom-seen interiority of the star we know almost exclusively from his over-the-top extroversion. In the few interviews with Belushi excerpted here, he’s sullen and short, revealing very little, especially when one reporter makes the mistake of likening him to Lou Costello.
Cutler takes on the ambitious task of showing not only Belushi’s impact, but how that impact wound up leading to his own ruin. The son of Albanian immigrants who grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, Belushi rejected his father’s dream of having his eldest son take over the family restaurant (his brother Jim Belushi notes that that’s where the “cheeseburger, cheeseburger” SNL skit came from) in favor of becoming an actor. The plentiful archival photos and footage are essential viewing for any fans of 1970s comedy, depicting a young, sprightly Belushi storming the Second City stage, or clowning through collaborations on the National Lampoon Radio Hour with Ramis and Gilda Radner. His friends note that he was so anxious to reach the next level in those days, he carried his reviews around in his pockets.
And yet even when he triumphed, Belushi was still plagued by dissatisfaction. Saturday Night Live was a big hit, but in the first season, he was outshone by Chevy Chase. Belushi also often clashed with show creator Lorne Michaels. Fellow cast member Jane Curtin, in one of Belushi’s rare critiques of its subject, states that “He didn’t seem to respect the women on the show,” and didn’t give sketches written by women the same attention as the ones written by men. Even then, Cutler has to have former SNL writer Anne Beatts pop in to say that most of the men on the show were chauvinistic, not just Belushi.
The drug use is similarly rose-colored, until it isn’t. Cocaine is treated as practically a requisite of the industry, its use encouraged to enhance excesses in artistic vision. Director John Landis tries to downplay the notorious cocaine consumption on the The Blues Brothers set, although co-star and fellow addict Carrie Fisher notes in archival footage that that’s when it seemed like Belushi’s habit started to get out of control. She remembers that he pushed her to date Aykroyd, so that she and John were the “bad kids,” while Dan and Judy were the cops. Throughout Belushi, Judy is seen as John’s angelic, stabilizing influence, downplaying her own participation in the drug use; for example, she complained to Gene Siskel after the publication of Woodward’s Wired that “He doesn’t tell the story that drugs can be fun… John and I both were drug users, and for a while it was fun. The tragedy is that John didn’t see where the fun stopped.” It was Belushi’s heroin usage, his friends maintain, that really led him to the point of no return. “Honey I am a serious drug addict,” Belushi writes in a letter to Judy so grave, Cutler forgoes the voiceover. “I am not able to control my emotions using them but I can’t stop now.”
Belushi’s epic but ultimately tragic life was overdue for a sympathetic treatment like this one: As a son of immigrants, he embodied the American Dream, racking up accomplishments that most could only dream of—but the way he got there was by breaking every rule there was, becoming famous due to his rebellious brand of comedy, living an around-the-clock hedonistic lifestyle. But underneath Belushi’s outlandish theatrics, like his katana-wielding Samurai or zit impression in the Animal House cafeteria, was a genuine sweetness that was the real key to his popularity. As Ramis is describing it, Cutler shows the scene where Bluto attempts to cheer up a sobbing Flounder by smashing various objects over his own head. Belushi didn’t care how much destruction he brought to himself, as long as he was entertaining you.