Late actor John Belushi is the subject of a new Showtime original documentary from director R.J. Cutler who did a similar project about Marlon Brando called Listen To Me Marlon. The Brando documentary used recordings of Brando talking about himself and his career. With BELUSHI we are promised the same idea to hear about Belushi’s career and life from the point of view of Belushi himself.
However, that’s not quite what we get. Certainly, we get a lot of information from Belushi’s writing (ironically voiced by another SNL alumni Bill Hader, who was actually born the year before Belushi exited the show). Hader is less narrator and more like a stand in voice actor for Belushi himself.
A tag line for the movie is “Everybody loved him. Few knew him” and in a certain sense that is true about his personal life, but anyone who was around during Belushi’s meteoric rise to super stardom from SNL probably knows a good deal about the tragic loss of a very talented young man at the age of 33.
The documentary opens with Belushi’s audition for the show then known as NBC’s Saturday Night. Less of an audition and more of Belushi basically showing off some of his talent with an attitude of okay can you show me to my dressing room. Although we learn from his letters to his girlfriend/wife Judy about his lack of control over his career, Belushi certainly seemed extremely confident about where he was heading.
NBC’s Saturday Night began on October 11, 1975 with a small cast known as the “not ready for prime-time players” most of whom knew each other from other sketch comedy groups like Second City out of Chicago and writers/performers from National Lampoon Lemmings.
The very first sketch that opened NBC’s Saturday Night involved Belushi, playing a foreign man of unknown origin, entering a room to meet a character played by the late writer and sometimes performer in the early years Michael O’Donoghue. O’Donoghue would say a phrase and Belushi, with a thick foreign accent, would then repeat the phrase kind of a tutor teaching English. This goes on for a minute until O’Donoghue’s character slumps over having had a heart attack. Belushi looks at him for a bit and then in a very exaggerated manner throws himself to the floor to Mimic O’Donoghue’s heart attack. After a chuckle from the crowd in walks Chevy Chase to pronounce “Live from New York it’s Saturday Night”. Somehow Chevy Chase seemed to upstage the sketch with his introduction of the show.
We get interviews from most of the cast members, crew, writers, and Lorne Michaels the show’s creator and producer. The opening sketch with Belushi ironically was a reason Michaels was hesitant to cast him and felt Belushi may not be a great fit for the show. Lorne was looking to create something unlike anything on TV at that time and felt Belushi’s physical and constant eruptions of emotions weren’t a good fit. But Chevy Chase and O’Donoghue convinced Michaels that Belushi was a good fit.
After about half the first season there was one clear break out star and much to the disdain of Belushi it was Chevy Chase. Chase got a lot of exposure for doing a faux news cast and also made the introduction to the show into a weekly prat fall which from Lorne’s own mouth wasn’t what he was looking for. As Chase became more popular Belushi was confused as to why it was not him getting the attention. He complained in letters to Judy about people not liking him and the lack of sketches he was in.
Most of the interviews Cutler directs uses footage of Belushi with different cast members acting as narrators. Early on there is a haunting voice over by Harold Ramis a cast mate with John at Second City who was around writing in those early years. As footage rolls of Belushi and Dan Aykroyd getting ready to go on stage at the Universal Amphitheater as the Blues Brothers characters, Ramis is heard saying “John was taking off and how happy I was for him, but at the same time wondered if John would be able to survive this”
This is a theme throughout the documentary we hear from just about everyone interviewed. How John would do everything in excess. There was a lot of casual drug use by many involved, but John would always take things to an extreme. Like the way he would physically overdue a character he would use drugs to a point everyone around him feared for his life.
Chevy Chase left the show after one year to use his new found fame in the movies. This opened a door for someone else to walk through and Belushi took that step. His breakout character came in a sketch of him playing a samurai warrior who was waiting on customers in various stores. Just one hit character was enough to propel a cast member into a new height of fame which is just what John had been waiting for.
The rest of the documentary plays out like a resume from John’s career. At one point in his career, he was on the most popular TV show, while playing a small part in the number one movie in America Animal House (a movie written by Harold Ramis with John in mind) and having a hit record with his now best friend Dan Aykroyd as the Blues Brothers. This is the kind of success Belushi craved but that also led to his downfall.
The most we learn about Belushi through this documentary has to do with his wife Judy and their relationship. His personal letters to her portray a less confident Belushi than the one we watched on TV and movies. His excessive drug use led to a breakup with Judy leaving Belushi to lose control of his life. When he finally writes Judy apologizing and wanting to break away from the drugs and get their relationship back, he hires a guy named Smokey to act as a babysitter to keep him away from drugs.
John and Judy moved to Massachusetts’ Martha’s Vineyard along with Smokey in toe to kick John’s habitual drug use. Dan Aykroyd was nearby and the two continued to work together on the movie Neighbors based on a Novel by Thomas Berger. The film is a dark comedy that showed a different side of Belushi. The movie bombed and Smokey feeling his job was done leaves and you know the rest of the story.
The film is more about love letters from John to Judy than a pure documentary. A documentary needs to have an unblinking eye for the truth. At times we get that in his letters, but there’s too much public information most everyone knows that’s MIA. Belushi’s overdose on drugs is glossed over to put it kindly. We hear from Judy how John went to Los Angeles and her counselor told her to stay behind to “work on herself” . That’s pretty bad advice at a time when Belushi is so vulnerable. We hear Dan Aykroyd talk about feeling so nervous for John that he left Massachusetts to check on him only to arrive too late.
Conveniently left out was the headline news about Cathy Smith, a former backup singer in the Blues Brothers band and a heavy drug user and dealer who was with John that fatal night admitting she gave him the injection of drugs that led to Belushi’s death and sent her to Prison. What about the visits from Robin Williams and Robert De Niro that night? Instead of that story we get an ending from Judy singing and playing a ukulele about these being the best times of their lives? There was a documentary’s worth of information to be told, but unfortunately this is not that documentary. Maybe someday we’ll get a true in-depth documentary about John Belushi, but this comes off as more of a walk down memory lane. After the failed movie Wired and a heavily criticized book by Bob Woodward it’s unlikely someone else will attempt to bite from this apple.