The 1970s were a momentous time for American comedy. Thanks to now-hallowed institutions like the magazine National Lampoon, the sketch TV show Saturday Night Live, and the movie Animal House, the hippie-influenced counterculture became the culture. The story of National Lampoon has been covered twice recently in the movies, first as a documentary (2015’s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead) and then as a Netflix biopic with Will Forte playing founder Doug Kenney (2018’s A Futile and Stupid Gesture). Gilda Radner, who was part of a wave of talent that moved from the National Lampoon Radio Hour to Saturday Night Live, was also the subject of a documentary in 2018 (Love, Gilda).
Viewers can be forgiven, then, for feeling like they might have already seen Belushi, the new documentary portrait of comedian John Belushi, who made his name in various National Lampoon projects and in the iconic first cast of Saturday Night Live. But director R.J. Cutler (The September Issue) does his best to give this well-worn ground its own personality, leaning on audio interviews conducted for the 2005 oral history-biography Belushi and on Belushi’s letters to his wife Judith, to offer a glimpse of the real man behind the comic persona. Stylized animation and voice-over by Bill Hader as Belushi bring this archival material to life.
The result is highly entertaining if not shockingly revelatory. Like many stars of his era, Belushi’s story begins with him in a vaguely unhappy home, looked down upon by a disillusioned immigrant father who wants his son to take over the family diner. (When Jim Belushi reveals that the oft-replayed SNL sketch where John plays the accented owner of a greasy spoon that only sells cheeseburgers [“Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger…”] is a mockery of their Albanian dad, it’s one of the film’s few “a-ha!” moments.) Instead, Belushi discovers theater and, from there, improv comedy at Chicago’s Second City. He becomes a star thanks to his impeccable instincts, and soon he is drafted into the New York group recording the National Lampoon Radio Hour that also included Chevy Chase, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, Christopher Guest, and numerous other future comedy stars.
Lorne Michaels reveals that he initially held off on hiring Belushi for SNL because he knew Belushi’s ego was going to be trouble. Once Chevy Chase left the show, and Belushi became the focus of fan attention, Michaels’s worst fears were realized. The comic became erratic, often not showing up for rehearsals, and broke his foot jumping off a stage. Harold Ramis discusses his wariness over John’s “appetites,” which includes the addiction to cocaine that led to his premature death.
The film inevitably touches on the career highpoints of Animal House and The Blues Brothers, just as inevitably as it covers the commercial disappointment of Belushi’s against-type follow-ups, Continental Divide and Neighbors. During this period, Belushi struggles to stay sober, largely for the sake of saving his marriage. But, as friend Carrie Fisher notes, this period was presumably the hardest for John, since the problems that inspired the drinking and drug use don’t just go away.
One of the main threads of Belushi is John’s intense and undying love for his wife Judy. Although he was not always faithful, John seemed to consider Judy his main lifeline. When John started flailing, Judy realized that she needed to save herself, even though she feared it might be crippling for John. She enunciates her fear that if she let John go to Los Angeles without her, he might end up dead. Sadly, she was right.
The film scores footage of the coroner arriving to retrieve Belushi’s body from the Chateau Marmont with John’s absolutely heartbreaking version of Randy Newman’s “Guilty” (from the Blues Brothers’ Made in America album). While the lyrics about how “it takes a whole lot of medicine to pretend I’m someone else” are almost too on-the-nose, the performance is so open and aching that one truly feels John Belushi’s pain. Even if we can’t fully understand it.
Belushi debuts on Showtime on Sunday, November 22.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.