One of the biggest problems with fame, I would imagine, is the sense that, because everyone knows who you are, they think they know you. That familiarity leads to misconceptions and judgements, or, even worse, an idealization of expectation that can never be achieved. In the case of legendary comic actor John Belushi, the mythology surrounding the actor only became larger when he died of a drug overdose at the age of 33, at the peak of his career. In the documentary Belushi, written and directed by R.J. Cutler, that mythology is addressed head-on by those who knew him best, creating the most complete portrait of perhaps the most beloved yet tragic performer of a generation.
Cutler pieces together Belushi’s life story using archival footage, animation and hand-written letters that were kept by Belushi’s wife, Judy. But the film’s emotional heft comes from never-before-heard recordings of Belushi’s friends and family, collected from interviews that were done just after Belushi’s untimely death in 1982. Hearing Belushi’s story told by those who knew and loved him the most is both moving and heartbreaking. While no specific judgements are made, the weaving together of all the memories and observations make for a vivid portrait of a complicated artist who never knew when enough was enough. But mostly, we learn of Belushi’s unending need for attention and control. The letters, read aloud by Bill Hader, show the depth of self-doubt and an unhealthy dependence on others, particularly his wife, for acceptance and love.
Using animation where he could find no actual footage, Cutler paints a story of a child, unloved and misunderstood by a demanding and unemotional father, whose from-the-womb need to entertain and be creative was never understood or accepted. The lack of approval from his father chased Belushi his entire life, and his friends and fellow performers describe how Belushi’s choices were often bizarre and outlandish, but all seemingly driven to satiate a larger-than-life need to fill an emptiness within.
Even though there is a deep examination of John Belushi’s emotional struggles and personal battles, it is the picture of a once-in-a-generation talent that balances the film and makes the anguish all the more relevant and the artistry all the more revelatory. Interviews with many of Belushi’s contemporaries, including Lorne Michaels, Chevy Chase, and Jane Curtin expand on what we all knew, that Belushi’s talents were outsized, and his drive to continually push the boundaries only made him better, in spite of his aggressively competitive nature that created rivalries and pushback from anyone who tried to control him. But any fan will revel in this collection of rare and early footage, including Saturday Night Live audition tapes, as well as stills and footage from his time with the legendary Second City comedy troupe in Chicago.
But the heart of Belushi is in the reflections of those who loved him best. Most effective are the interviews with Harold Ramis and Carrie Fisher, both now gone, who spoke of both a fear and an understanding of the addictions and appetites that drove Belushi’s behaviors, and the words of Belushi’s best friend and creative partner, Dan Aykroyd, who speaks of a depth of love and creative communion between the two artists.
It is always tragic to see a talent gone too soon, but the world was given the gift of John Belushi and, thanks to this complete portrait of the man and artist, we may finally be able to say that we know him—which might make us miss him all the more.
This review is from the 34th AFI FEST. Showtime will air Belushi on November 22.