Having not read Bob Woodward’s infamous biography of John Belushi nor seen the even more infamous narrative movie adaptation, I approached R.J. Cutler’s fairly conventional documentary about the legendary actor with few prejudices and left it with more questions than I had when I went in. The ostensible reason for Cutler’s new take on Belushi’s life is a collection of recordings of people close to Belushi that were used for a kind of corrective oral biography by his widow, Judy Belushi Pisano, in 2005. The interviews were done not long after Belushi’s death from a drug overdose in 1982, and many of the famous people who do the talking are dead themselves, thus lending the overall production a macabre tone that weighs it down. Generally speaking, Cutler tries to build his narrative around these recordings but since there is so much personal history to fill in he has to stretch what he has with reenactments (some animated) and extensive archival footage.
Though not a hagiography, the movie clearly tries to make the case that, as as actor (which is how he thought of himself rather than as a comedian), Belushi was both unique for his time and a trailblazer, tracing a professional arc from his early days with Chicago’s Second City comic theater troupe in the early 70s to his seminal role as one of the founders and, according to Cutler, the guiding spirit of Saturday Night Live, and on to his short but very successful movie career. What distinguished Belushi from his boomer peers in the comedy business was his physicality. One of the things that Cutler does right is show how Belushi’s involvement in the counter-culture humor magazine National Lampoon’s extension into non-print media also expanded its base way beyond the college egghead crowd. With his whip-smart comic instincts and willingness to make a complete ass of himself, Belushi broke through the intellectual barriers that had limited the appeal of left-wing humor in the 1960s. Much of the movie is given over to his unofficial lifelong partnership with Dan Aykroyd, a fellow Second City alumnus and half of Belushi’s most remunerative creation, the Blues Brothers. Though equally outrageous, Aykroyd was still more of a cerebral performer, and the combination of the two working with and off of each other basically led to what visual comedy would become in the 1980s.
Cutler does a decent job of laying this out in a comprehensible way, and what’s inevitably frustrating about the movie as a whole is that nothing really sounds new. All the archival material is already available on YouTube, and the interviews, since they were mostly recorded so soon after Belushi’s death at 33, tend to linger on his accomplishments in a morose way.
In other words, there’s little long-distance perspective, which seems like a lost opportunity. The major complaint about the Woodward book is that it focused too closely on Belushi’s drug use, and Cutler’s movie does pretty much the same thing but with a less salacious tone. For once I would have liked to hear from some scholarly talking heads who could have explained Belushi’s work in a wider cultural context. As it is, the doc stresses his contributions to the 70s, when American TV and movies changed significantly, but does little to enrich our appreciation of the man himself or what exactly we lost when he died prematurely. In the end, John Belushi comes across as another creative genius who couldn’t handle stardom, but for those of us who were there when he shone brightest, there was obviously so much more.
Now playing in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Yurakucho (03-6259-8608), Shinjuku Cinema Qualite (03-3352-5645).
Belushi home page in Japanese
photo (c) Passion Pictures (Films) Limited 2020