Culled from an extraordinary collection of audiotaped interviews, “Belushi” turns out to be a lot more than just another look at a star who succumbed to drug abuse, but rather a celebration of John Belushi’s talent — and an era — as recalled by those who knew him best. R.J. Cutler’s documentary has its melancholy moments, but from the opening glimpse of Belushi’s “Saturday Night Live” audition video, it surely won’t give you the blues.
Because the documentary relies heavily on decades-old audio, Cutler employs a few devices to help illustrate the film, augmenting clips of Belushi performing with animation and home movies to help putty in the gaps.
Not surprisingly, the best portion centers on Belushi breaking into the comedy world through National Lampoon and Second City, coming up with an extraordinary collection of talent that eventually found a home on “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-1970s.
Even then, Belushi was already difficult, as series patriarch Lorne Michaels remembers, flatly stating his distaste for television, and subsequently chafing about Chevy Chase emerging as the program’s first star.
Belushi ascended to the “alpha” role when Chase left, but his early brushes with stardom only heightened an awareness of his excesses when it came to drug abuse. In a telling thought, the late writer-director Harold Ramis mentions seeing Belushi shine on stage with the Blues Brothers, rejoicing in his success before thinking, “Knowing his appetites, I don’t think he’ll survive this.”
“Belushi” draws on handwritten letters Belushi sent to his wife Judy, revealing his inner turmoil and doubts, all of which ended with a drug overdose in 1982 at the age of 33. Dan Aykroyd, his friend and collaborator, recalls having told Belushi that he was writing something for them, a project that eventually became “Ghostbusters,” which would have been the hit that eluded Belushi after his breakout part in “Animal House.”
The interviews — conducted for an oral history about Belushi by author Tanner Colby, who was working with Judy Belushi — offer a nostalgic look at the early days of “SNL,” but also another reminder of the “wretched excess,” as Ramis puts it, which can accompany stardom.
The late Carrie Fisher — who struggled with her own addiction, and co-starred in the “Blues Brothers” movie — speaks of the toll fame can exact, saying, “Once you have that kind of television fame, you belong to people,” and that after the initial rush of euphoria, Belushi came to feel “more hunted by it.”
The tears of a clown remains one of comedy’s most familiar and enduring cliches, but “Belushi” still captures the truth of it through this window in time, when “SNL” became a launching pad for talent that has carried through the decades since.
The documentary closes with a snippet of Belushi doing his uncanny impersonation of Joe Cocker, singing the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The irony, of course, is that for his gifts, Belushi couldn’t get by, even with a lot of help, and love, from his friends.
“Belushi” premieres Nov. 22 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.