What We Learned From the New Documentary “Belushi”

Garage bands, a Nixon connection and Gene Shalit all play a part

November 20, 2020 6:00 am
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd
John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd perform songs from "The Blues Brothers."
Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Over the course of his filmmaking career, director R.J. Cutler has covered a wide variety of subjects, including life in a public high school (1999’s American High) and the making of the September 2007 issue of Vogue (2009’s The September Issue). Cutler’s latest project, debuting Sunday on Showtime, is Belushi, a concise and often moving portrait of the late John Belushi. 

The bulk of the interviews in the film come from recordings made by writer Tanner Colby for an oral history of Belushi — the book Belushi: A Biography, a collaboration with Belushi’s widow Judy Belushi Pisano. Cutler also makes use of animated sequences and features letters Belushi wrote to Judy over the course of their relationship, which began when they were in high school; end credits reveal that the voice reading those is Bill Hader’s. 

It’s a wide-ranging film, and one which doesn’t avoid its subject’s troubling behavior. The archival clips of Belushi in his prime are also a fine reminder of what a talent he was — and admiring comments from the likes of his Continental Divide director Michael Apted point to a more serious side to his acting that he was never able to fully explore. Here’s a look at some of the things we found most fascinating about this new documentary.

Belushi’s Life in Comedy Began at a Young Age

Belushi’s brother Jim recalls him knocking on neighbors’ doors at the age of 3, going inside, and performing a kind of stand-up routine for them. It’s a charming story of the comedian as precocious child — though it also disconcertingly anticipates the adult Belushi’s tendency to wander into strangers’ homes and pass out on their couches when in varying degrees of intoxication.

Belushi also shows images from Beushi’s high school yearbooks — including his time on the football team and one photo of a young Belushi in drag.

Music Was a Constant Long Before the Blues Brothers

Early on in the documentary, we hear a bit from the garage band Belushi played in in high school, The Ravens. They’re pretty good! (You can listen to one song of theirs here.) Music is one of the elements Cutler weaves throughout the film: Belushi plays drums in high school, foregoes music as a rising comedian and then reconnects with it when he becomes obsessed with the blues during the making of National Lampoon’s Animal House. “John used the blues as a way to keep everyone together,” Judy observes at one point — but it also pushed him to greater levels of excess. 

During the period in his life when he was trying to get clean, friends of Belushi describe him as giving away his entire record collection — an attempt to purge that part of his past. Belushi’s interest in punk — which led to Fear’s appearance on Saturday Night Live and Belushi sitting in on drums with the Dead Boys — coincides with the bleakest part of his life before his death; so too was an attempt to reunite his high school band, which led to them playing the Taxi wrap party.

The Use of Archival Recordings Pays Off

Two of the most insightful interviewees are, sadly, no longer with us. The use of recordings made several years ago insures that both Harold Ramis and Carrie Fisher have their say, and the two of them have among the most fascinating things to say. “John always had appetites that were completely out of control for everything,” Ramis observes early in the film — and points out that, as Belushi became a bigger and bigger star, that became more and more of a problem.

Fisher, meanwhile, offers an empathic take on Belushi’s struggles with addiction and issues staying sober. She also describes Belushi’s efforts to set her up with friend and frequent collaborator Dan Aykroyd, which went reasonably well; Fisher and Aykroyd were briefly engaged

Belushi’s Attempt to Get Clean Involved Richard Nixon’s Former Bodyguard

The film describes Belushi’s loved ones attempting to help him stay clean — a difficult task when Belushi had reached the “random strangers giving him drugs” level of celebrity. Enter Richard “Smokey” Wendell, who had once guarded Richard Nixon. Wendell was hired to restrict access to Belushi, an unlikely plan that nonetheless — based on the interviewees’ comments — worked. 

There Is a Gene Shalit Clip That Will Break Your Heart

Not surprisingly, some of the most insightful comments come from the interviews with Dan Aykroyd and Judy Belushi Pisano. There are a few period interviews featuring Aykroyd and Belushi incorporated into the film; one, with Gene Shalit, stands out as particularly moving. It’s around the time of Neighbors, the film that Belushi cites as a turning point for Belushi near the end of his life. Shalit asks both men a question; the responses from each are absolutely crushing, in their own way. 

If the idea of a documentary on John Belushi’s life has piqued your interest, you probably know the basics of what you’ll see in the film already. But it’s the smaller details, and the window into comedic history being made, that help make this film compelling.

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