John Belushi had the affliction of wanting more. The chemicals inside his brain fired off a little faster than those of the average person. He always needed to be brought up or brought down. A comedian’s life, lived through performances, it can feel like he shared everything he had within him. But who’s laughing now? The dark interior of the comedian is always supple ground to explore. It provides the documentarian endless fodder to psychoanalyze, much to R.J. Cutler’s benefit with Belushi. What we learn about Belushi, time, and time again, is that he was the rallying guy. He brought people together and created families out of would-be outcasts. His star burned so bright and so fast, impacting so many, that those who are left behind have a lot of stories to tell.
Given the present situation with COVID-19 and the political climate of America, there has never been a better time for documentaries. Presented within is a winning format that can be used to get around the filmmaking lockdown. Belushi matches a whole legacy of stock footage, backed by audio recordings of all the people who knew him best. There is rarely any visual representation of the speaker (sometimes it’ll use awkwardly edgy animated cutscenes to fill in), keeping the footage squarely focused on the comedian’s past, and giving voices to the people who experienced the grandeur of his success, and the fallout of his tragedy.
Functionally, it makes for an interesting story to document. Belushi begins with some difficulty, presenting the most obvious path to the star’s past. It spends about the first quarter examining his upbringing, the making of the man. While ultimately crucial to explain what happened after, it drags heavily, having to invent footage and lean on less material artifacts of the past. Sometimes the most it can offer is an unexamined epistolary account of his romance with life partner Judith Pisano. Their relationship explains how Belushi was with anyone, dynamic and with a kind of centripetal force that pulls everyone in like comedic gravity. As the storyline proceeds, his bright stardom feels like an inevitability. When he goes to Second City and cultivates a whole movement within the comedy scene. When he successfully moves that to the National Lampoon radio program. When he goes for an interview with Lorne Michaels about joining Saturday Night Live, and says his television is covered in spit cause he hates the format, it doesn’t matter. He was destined to be there, and so, he would be.
SNL is the beginning of the end. Cast next to Chevy Chase, his first year, and the first year of the program itself, is a fight to become the alpha male. It quickly became an uphill battle. After-all, he’s Chevy Chase, and you’re not. Sidelined with lame costumed gags in favor of Chase’s simple pratfalls and catchphrases, the pattern of drug use developed. Belushi needed more. An endless quest for affirmation spurned his comedy onward until he became the guy as Chase exited the picture. What is most interesting, is what happens after the end of Belushi’s own SNL run.
Belushi goes to Hollywood. Don’t stop him, he’s on a roll. National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978) was the absolute peak of his career and of toga parties everywhere. A simplistic frat comedy on its surface, it represents so much of Belushi’s qualities and certainly the extent of his comedic acting chops. It’s the eyebrow raises, the maximalist energy, the neverending circle of influence emanating from a passionate drive to bring people together. It received a riotous response from the very first screening and changed everything for a certain brand of comedian-starring movie, the kind still being made to this day. It also showed something key about Belushi’s desperation; it was not enough and would never be enough.
From here, the documentary finds an irresistible momentum. Nothing captivates the public more than the story of a struggling star. Belushi would never reclaim exactly the same dopamine hit he got from Animal House, the worldwide exposure, and moment of cultural catharsis. He was not just the guy from the show anymore, he was the show, the complete package. Before sliding off the rails, he established his most critically interesting act, the Blues Brothers. While they premiered on SNL, make no mistake, the Blues Brothers were a greatly talented band, and not simply a punchline. They were funny too, because Belushi was inherently funny. From stage performances to the wonderfully fun movie about the band, the Blues Brothers were an all-encompassing window into everything Belushi was about, everything he would ever become.
The downfall from there was fast and to the point. He could not retain the same Hollywood status as he entered into the conversation with. His actions became desperate pleas for help. Between those fraught years, as he sought for more anarchic expression, he had one good summer. Enlisting the help of martial arts trainer Bill Wallace, he got fit and spent his last sober summer on the beach with friend Dan Ackroyd. Late friend Carrie Fisher explains, with her own proximity to substance abuse, how hellish that must have been for him. To subdue a problem without dealing with the cause. And then, it was back to the drugs. As it always goes with addicts, it’s like they never stopped, and it’s an immediate return to their own personal circle of hell.
Belushi’s life spun wildly out of control. He picked up heroin. Traded in his love for Blues for the anarchy of Punk music. The community he once had, to replace the pain that brought him to addiction, came to an abrupt stop. The movies weren’t working, either. He no longer had the creative control he so desired over their productions. He was spun out, no longer the guy, or any guy, an addict stuck in an endless spiral of despair. Where the documentary excels is in tracking all those moments between his stardom, where we get a clearer picture of the off-screen Belushi. It’s a useful, all-encompassing watch for any fan of comedy and the genre’s most gravitational star.