'Belushi' Movie Review: The Depth of John Belushi [AFI Fest]

John Belushi died in 1982. 28 years later, the documentary Belushi offers new material on the comedian and actor. Thanks to his widow, Judy Belushi-Pisano, recording interviews with Hollywood collaborators in the aftermath of her husband’s death, writer-director R.J. Cutler can present an oral history of his life and career. Fans will gain new insight into the comedian’s personal struggles, and people who’ve only seen his movies and sketches will certainly learn the depth of the man. 

Before ‘Saturday Night Live,’ John Belushi was a funny kid 

Home movies show John Belushi growing up in Wheaton, Il. The consensus is that he was a natural performer, and animation brings to life what young John’s childhood performances might have looked like. 

Belushi-Pisano also saved letters her husband wrote from the time they were only dating. They are humorous and he genuinely misses her when he’s on the road. Those letters would grow despondent towards the end.

John Belushi almost didn’t make it to ‘Saturday Night Live’ 

From forming the West Compass Players improv group to joining Second City and The National Lampoon, Belushi was a rising star. When he auditioned for Saturday Night Live, he burned his bridge with Lorne Michaels. 

This is when you start to hear from other beloved forces in comedy who are no longer with us like Harold Ramis, Carrie Fisher and Penny Marshall. Ivan Reitman, Dan Aykroyed, Chevy Chase, Michaels and various SNL writers help paint the picture. Classic sketch highlights, including Belushi’s screen test, show was a special performer he was. 

Season 2 of Saturday Night Live saw Belushi start taking painkillers for an injury incurred doing a pratfall. When the prescription ran out, he turned to hard drugs. All of this strained his relationship with Judy, as well as the female writers on SNL, though he married Judy during a hiatus.

The movies and the end

Animal House made him a movie star, and he introduced his musical side as the Blues Brothers on SNL. Filming 1941 during SNL really affected his performance, let alone the drugs he was still taking. Even in stories where his habits interrupted production, people want to give him the benefit of the doubt. They were all genuinely concerned for his health.  

He tried to take his acting seriously in his lesser known film Continental Divide, and had hoped Neighbors would be more nuanced. He even got clean for a year and a half, but the documentary gets into the psychology that led to his drug use and relapse. It’s a lot deeper than a simple overdose. 

The oral history is a priceless resources for this documentary, though Cutler doesn’t rely on it completely. He uses archival footage and creates new animation to create the full picture of John Belushi. The documentary will be on Showtime Nov. 22.

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