Emblazoned on John Belushi’s grave is an inscription that reads, “I may be gone, but Rock and Roll lives on.” As this new, quite unique, documentary shows us, music was one of the few things that gave the legendary comedian pure, unadulterated joy. In a way, comedy was the rock and roll of the 60s and 70s, what with rabble-rousers like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor who all drew huge raucous crowds.
Belushi director R.J. Cutler presents by far the most in-depth portrait of the Saturday Night Live pioneer and superstar seen to date. Like so many funny people, Belushi was the cliché clown laughing through his tears. From a childhood in which he was never considered good enough to his dependence on drugs at the end of his life, he never felt at ease. Through Belushi’s widow, Judy Belushi, his family, and closest friends, we are given a glimpse into the private personality most of us have never seen.
The documentary is made linearly, from the cradle to the grave. While I did find the exhaustive detail a bit much at times, I appreciate the research and meticulousness of the presentation. Eschewing the traditional “talking head” interview style of most biographical tales, Cutler uses voiceovers only. In addition to those commenting, there are previously unreleased audiotapes of the subject describing the events of his life and his feelings, in his own words. We do see footage of Belushi himself, plus striking animation to recreate some of the stories. However, the movie is largely comprised of still photos, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, and John’s own handwritten letters (narrated by Bill Hader).
The rock and roll comedian angle is a lot of fun—we see wonderful footage of Belushi’s classic Joe Cocker impersonation, plus the birth and rise of The Blues Brothers. While it is not mentioned in the documentary that John Belushi’s request that The Ventures’ 2000 Pound Bee single would be played at his funeral was granted, the filmmakers play the song as an outro over the closing credits.
Dan Ackroyd, Belushi’s true best friend, and Judy provide most of the commentary throughout the film, but the portrait of this short, extraordinary life is painted through the words of many interesting people: most of his famous colleagues from SCTV and SNL chime in, as do John Landis (director of his first film, Animal House), friends Carrie Fisher and Penny Marshall, and Michael Apted (director of his last film, Continental Divide).
Belushi comes off as a complicated dude—a loving, if difficult, husband, a talented, if difficult, performer. He was self-aware yet unable to do the right thing. Back in the 70s and 80s, addiction was seen as a weakness or a character flaw, something you could beat if you really wanted to. Nowadays, it is considered a disease. There are many regrets and what-ifs posed by Judy and Dan, but over the years, they have come to accept that John did what he wanted, and that was who he was. Without his demons, would he have made such an impression in the comedy world? While the “better to burn out than fade away” philosophy is long gone, the question lingers.
It’s fun to revisit some of Belushi’s most beloved characters: the belligerent Samurai Futaba, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Pete Dionasopoulos (the “chee-bugah” café owner), and the contributor of vehement opinion pieces on Weekend Update, during which he coined his catchphrase, “But N-O-O-O!” He certainly did have an indefinable punk rock magnetism, and he was more intellectual than you might guess.
But the filmmakers do not shy away from Belushi’s flaws. Not the least of which was the aforementioned drug and alcohol abuse, but also his sexism (he didn’t think women were funny and he sometimes refused to perform SNL sketches written by them), the fact that he cheated on his wife (even though she supported him through the lean years), and his arrogance (he put down other comedians, even legends who’d gone before him and paved the way for his success).
Belushi doesn’t go into much detail about its subject’s inevitable death at 33—maybe Cutler thought there’s been enough on that—but that’s about the only thing that’s glossed over. Everything you ever wanted to know, and more, is here in the nearly 2-hour documentary. While I personally would have preferred to see and hear the interviewees and would have liked some edits here and there, at least the filmmakers were thinking outside the box.
Overall, Belushi is a well-made, informative, and entertaining documentary and well worth the watch.