Belushi (United States, 2020)

November 21, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Belushi Poster

One of the criteria I often use to determine whether a documentary biography is “good” (as opposed to “mediocre”) is whether it provides something beyond what I could find by perusing the Wikipedia article about the subject. In the case of Belushi, a 2020 examination of the life of iconic comedian John Belushi, the answer is “yes.” That’s not to say Belushi provides any new or groundbreaking information but the movie gets closer to bringing to life the late comedian, with all his demons, than any previous attempt has done. This is in large part due to newly-released archival audio interviews with many of those who were close to the man – not to mention Belushi himself.

Documentarian R.J. Cutler (the producer of The War Room, the 1993 expose about the Bush/Clinton/Perot smackdown of 1992) isn’t interested in a talking heads feature, perhaps believing it doesn’t suit an anarchic personality like Belushi’s. The majority of Belushi is comprised of private photographs provided by Belushi’s wife, Judith Belushi-Pisano, and other friends. There are also home movies, movie/TV clips, and news footage. To provide life and context to the audio-only material, animation (supervised by Robert Valley) is used. Letters written by Belushi (primarily to his wife) are read by Bill Hader doing a Belushi voice impersonation.

The portrait that emerges during the course of Belushi is a complex man who, despite a chaotic, high-octane public image, was more of an insecure, low-key Midwesterner who cared deeply about his parents and wife. He was serious about music and, although some believed The Blues Brothers began as a stunt, Belushi was always sincere about it. His drug addiction was common knowledge but his decision to add heroin to his usual poison (cocaine) surprised some. As someone who also struggled with drug addiction for much of her adult life, the late Carrie Fisher provides some perspective about Belushi by emphasizing that the most difficult thing for an addict to confront (especially without an effective support system in place) is the blandness of ordinary life.

One contribution that Belushi makes to documenting this larger-than-life pop figure is to add the input of several people who have since died. That includes Fisher, Harold Ramis, and Penny Marshall. Belushi-Pisano (she remarried after John’s death) opens up more than in any previous interview, detailing the quieter side of her husband and the difficulties his fame and addiction caused for them as a couple. (According to her, after nearly a year and a half of sobriety, Belushi fell off the wagon during the filming of Neighbors and that downward spiral led to his death.)

If there are aspects of Belushi’s story (especially with regard to his drug addiction and death) that seem over-familiar, it’s probably because this sort of behavior is epidemic among those who live their lives in the fast lane under the glare of the public spotlight. The cycle of addiction, once started, can be nearly impossible to break, especially for those embedded in a celebrity culture where a lack of money is rarely a barrier to obtaining whatever one craves. Despite similarities with other famous figures who flew too close to the sun, Belushi’s story is in large part unique – something that Belushi takes pains to illustrate.

Although he died 38 years ago – before more than 45% of the Americans living today were born – Belushi remains an iconic figure not only because of his groundbreaking antics during the early years of Saturday Night Live but because of his music, his star-making appearance in Animal House, and the other movies he made during a relatively short screen career. In Belushi, Cutler notes that on the day of his 30th birthday, John had a #1 album, was a major TV star, and had been the standout performer in the (then) top-grossing comedy of all-time (Animal House). Only a little more than three years later, he was in the ground. Belushi explores the reasons for that and, although mysteries remain, the film uncovers enough to re-enforce the maxim that fame and stardom can exacerbate rather than cure some ills of the soul.

Belushi (United States, 2020)

Director: R.J. Cutler
Cast: John Belushi, Judith Belushi-Pisano, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Belushi, John Landis, Harold Ramis, Carrie Fisher, Chevy Chase
Screenplay: R.J. Cutler
Cinematography: R.J. Cutler
Music: Tree Adams
U.S. Distributor: Showtime
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2020-11-22
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Profanity)
Genre: Documentary
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1