Saturday, November 21, 2020

Belushi: The Man, The Documentary

In Brazil, Animal House was titled “House of Scumbags.” That seems a little harsh, but presumably the military government did not appreciate its gleeful defiance of authority. Here in America, it has become a perennial favorite, embraced by generation after generation of college kids. There is no denying John Belushi was a major reason why, even though many of the film’s fans were too young to remember him at the height of his fame. His TV-and-film career was relatively short, but he made a lasting impression on pop culture. R.J. Cutler documents his work and inner demons through the words of those who knew him best in Belushi, which premieres tomorrow on Showtime.

Appropriately we only see Belushi, obviously in archival footage, but Cutler chronicles his life through extensive audio interviews recorded by author Tanner Colby, for an oral history of Belushi, authorized by his widow, Judy. Included among the voices are the likes of Dan Aykroyd (his great friend), Chevy Chase (his great “rival”), Carrie Fisher (his co-star in
The Blues Brothers), John Landis, Harold Ramis, Jane Curtain, Bruce McGill (“D-Day” in Animal House), Jim Belushi, and Michael Apted (director of his under-rated change-of-pace, Continental Divide). To illustrate Belushi’s early years, Cutler also incorporates Robert Valley’s animated sequences, which really bring out both his slyness and his sensitivity as a kid.

Frankly, the broad strokes of Belushi’s career are still well known among comedy fans: Second City,
Saturday Night Live, Animal House, and the Blues Brothers album and movie. Cutler also does a nice job covering Continental Divide as an example of the mature career Belushi might have had and Neighbors as the disaster film that was the point where everything started to go wrong. In contrast, the big-budget Steven Spielberg bomb 1941 is only mentioned in passing, which is about right.

Cutler adeptly balances the film’s voices, including that of Bill Hader reading Belushi’s often painfully frank letters to his wife. They are not always elegiac and laudatory. Frankly,
SNL producer Lorne Michaels still sounds exasperated—and it is hard to blame him, given Belushi’s unprofessional behavior. There are sure to be some nuggets of information that will be new to most viewers, but it is the bittersweet vibe that will stay with them. Cutler really does a nice job bringing out Belushi’s personal warmth and insecurities. The only discordant note is the celebration of the actor’s embrace of the 1960’s counter-culture, given the drug-culture that came with it eventually led to his demise (sorry, the Sixties weren’t cool).

Belushi isn’t the first
SNL alumnus to get the prestige-doc treatment. That would be Love, Gilda, but this one is better. Regardless, he would take satisfaction from beating Chevy Chase. Clearly, Cutler’s film works, because it makes you want to revisit Belushi’s classic movies and skits. Logically, there is also a lot of blues on the soundtrack, which is a nice bonus. Recommended as a heart-felt tribute and a potent nostalgia trip (even if you were too young remember the era of the big three networks), Belushi airs this Sunday night (11/22) on Showtime.