Comedy, by its very nature, often attracts energetic and larger than life personas. However, few burn as bright as John Belushi, a vital star in shaping the future of comedy. From the 1960s through the early 1980s, few would argue he was one of the kings of the medium. He performed at Second City as a young adult and generated acclaim with National Lampoon. On the small screen, he became a superstar as an original cast member of Saturday Night Live. Animal House and Blue Brothers remain two of the greatest comedies ever made. Yet a drug overdose at the age of 33 ended the immensely talented Belushi’s life.
Piecing together interviews, iconic comedy clips, and animated segments, Director R.J. Cutler weaves together a portrait of the iconoclast. Belushi keeps its focus tight and simple, never straying from the star’s incredible talent. Bill Hader contributes as the voice of Belushi, but the more interesting interviews come from those who grew up with him. Judith Belushi-Pisano and Jim Belushi shine a light on John’s life as a teenager and ambitious young performer. SNL and National Lampoon fanatics need not worry, as frequent collaborators Dan Ackroyd, Lorne Michaels, and Harold Ramis shed light on his budding career.
Cutler’s choice to include animation within a story like Belushi’s crafts a unique tone for the film. The animation of Belushi himself captures the gremlin-like glint in his eye that made him such an enduring presence. The darker, rougher images are simplistic yet powerful encapsulations of the nature of his comedic persona. These impressionistic recreations of his home life and familial relationships establish a troubled yet passionate young man that would take the world by storm.
There’s little in Belushi, aside from the animation, that feels unique in its stylings. At times, Belushi could be mistaken for I, Gilda, or The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling. None of these films are bad, but they are far from innovative. For comedy fans, this is the definitive portrait of the comedian’s struggles. However, it falls into many of the tropes of bio-documentary, including an over-reliance on archival footage to tell the performer’s story. The most effective parts of Belushi occur far away from the world of SNL and National Lampoon. Yet it’s impossible to tell the story of Belushi without these iconic clips. It’s a catch-22 that limits the ceiling of Belushi, even as the audio and storytelling fascinates.
Belushi will be a hit within comedy nerd circles, but it may struggle to breakthrough outside this group. Thanks in part to Hader’s excellent voice work, the footage and audio of Belushi will help you onto an emotional roller coaster. Belushi’s work may be done, but his legacy continues to grow. Among the most tragic figures in entertainment history, you cannot help but ask what could have been for the immensely talented man and comedian.