Next year marks the 40th anniversary of John Belushi’s death from a mixture of cocaine and heroin – a speedball.
A brilliant comedic force of nature, Belushi achieved national recognition as one of the original cast members of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. But he became a legend for his unhinged performance as John Blutarsky in National Lampoon’s Animal House. His drug-related death in 1982 rocked Hollywood and further highlighted the need for resources to confront drug addiction.
Yet, Belushi’s drug addiction journey isn’t the sole focus of director R.J. Cutler’s (The September Issue) documentary, Belushi, which premiered on Showtime in late November. To say that the documentary is a “warts and all” story is a cliche, but it does truly give as complete a portrait of the comic as one could imagine.
By the end of the documentary, you realize Belushi’s need for drug rehabilitation was as unfortunately ahead of its time as his comedic sensibilities.
“There’s a very powerful story here to be told about a great artist who suffered from addiction, and at a time when the resources to confront addiction simply didn’t exist,” Cutler remarked. “The Betty Ford clinic opened the year John died. The guy was in a boxing match without boxing gloves. He didn’t stand a chance against his disease. So to see the price paid when things like addiction are not taken seriously in a culture and society is, I think, a powerful narrative to explore in this moment.”
Cutler and his producing partner John Battsek set out to make Belushi as a way of celebrating the man who, in the 1970s, embodied the image of the ultimate insider/outside. They wanted to explore the man who, when he began appearing on Saturday Night Live in 1975, immediately forged personal connections with his audiences. To explore his legacy, they conducted interviews with John’s widow, Judy, after a period of building her trust in their intent.
The documentary features several audio recordings of Belushi’s peers and friends commissioned by Judy as an attempt to control the narrative of Belushi’s life following Bob Woodward’s 1984 book Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. Voices such as Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis among others offered their takes on Belushi’s life: his triumphs, his faults, and his struggles. Judy Belushi was initially reluctant to participate in the documentary, but Cutler and team earned her trust gradually. She eventually provided them access to the audiotaped interviews and intensely personal letters written by Belushi (some of which are narrated in the film by Bill Hader).
But she had to first trust that Cutler would treat Belushi’s legacy with respect.
“Before we were shown the archive, we went up to Martha’s Vineyard and spent a few days just talking. I remember that the core of the film was really formed over a long afternoon where Judy and I sat on the cliff overlooking the ocean that you see in the film – from that property that Judy and John lived on. We sat on an oversized swing just talking about Judy and John’s life together and Judy’s life story. It’s in those encounters that the foundation of a trusting relationship is formed.”
Cutler was 14 years old when Belushi premiered on Saturday Night Live but knew him from his earlier stint on the National Lampoon Radio Hour and other projects. Yet, seeing Belushi on primetime television seemed to Cutler to mark the beginnings of a cultural shift. After exploring John Belushi through the interviews and the intensely personal letters, Cutler realized he knew nothing about who Belushi really was or about the vast impact he had on popular culture.
In particular, according to Cutler, Belushi popularized performance art on a previously unseen scale. It’s why a large section of the documentary focuses on Belushi and Aykroyd’s run as the Blues Brothers. Was it a band? Was it an act? Two actors certainly performed the characters of Jake and Elwood Blues, but they also formed a pretty awesome band.
And audiences ate it up.
That’s just one piece of evidence the documentary uses to highlight the lasting legacy of John Belushi.
“That’s why I opened the movie where they are at the Universal Amphitheater. The crowd is near delirium. That’s the potential of performance art. It can be that good, and you see it. This was John’s vision. So too was the National Lampoon Radio Hour. So too was the gathering of this extraordinary group of artists. There was nothing, nothing, bringing Bill Murray and Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner together except for John Belushi. That I had no idea about, and it’s a beautiful thing.”