REVIEW: Belushi [2020]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 108 minutes
    Release Date: November 22nd, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Showtime Networks
    Director(s): R.J. Cutler
    Writer(s): R.J. Cutler

I don’t think he’ll survive this.

Because I enjoyed John Candy and Chris Farley‘s work growing up, their deaths didn’t automatically become their identity. I’ve never been one to be affected by the death of anyone I didn’t personally know, so my sense of loss focused upon the art instead of the person. I can therefore remember their larger-than-life personas and the smiles they coaxed in real-time throughout my adolescence during the 1980s and 1990s. It’s something I don’t possess when it comes to John Belushi since he passed away two months after I was born. So while I’ve seen the “Saturday Night Live” clips and own copies of Animal House and The Blues Brothers, I’ve only experienced his legacy through hindsight. As such, the work cannot exist for me independently from his overdose.

A film like R.J. Cutler‘s Belushi is thus an integral tool as far as my being able to intellectually separate the man from the myth by allowing those close to him to share what it was like to watch his ascent in a way I couldn’t. It’s a literal oral history of John’s career as told through unreleased interviews (mostly conducted by Tanner Colby) atop archival clips and personal photography/home movies. They have the memories I don’t regardless of how close they were to him. I could theoretically give an oral history about Candy and Farley where it’s contextually relevant to their impact on my life. Them doing it for Belushi therefore operates on two levels: personally and historically. They have an insight that outsiders and fans don’t.

His widow Judith Belushi-Pisano and brother James Belushi can tell us about his family life. Friends Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis can explain the energy and excitement of being by his side both in front of and away from a camera. And countless others can provide their impressions about John’s ego, talent, temper, and addiction. Whether it’s Carrie Fisher remarking on what it means to turn to drugs or Anne Beatts putting his misogyny in context with the other men she wrote for on “SNL” or Lorne Michaels very matter-of-factly reminiscing that he knew hiring him would be trouble, no one denies the fact that Belushi was a star worthy of the world’s attention. But there were reasons for his choices. His demons were never hidden.

So it’s not surprising that they are what I think about when his name pops into my mind. More than the laughter, writing, or acting, it’s the cocaine that rises to the top. That’s why we need these types of documentaries to fill in the blanks of an unhappy childhood home with a depressed Albanian immigrant father who didn’t talk to his mother that he hoped his success could rewrite or the eventual acknowledgement that he wouldn’t be able to kick his habit without the help of constant supervision. The darkness that mired his relationships and burned bridges throughout his career were deeply rooted, rendering the unbridled physicality and chaotic genius he wielded on-stage a mask he wore to numb the pain as regularly as the drug use.

There’s a certain charm to hearing these voices crackled under static due to the age of Colby’s recordings and the presumed intention that they wouldn’t be used as anything more than research. And there’s a welcome sense of familiarity courtesy of the numerous animated reenactments adding levity and metaphor via a constant shifting of time to show a young depiction of John where his older self should be—representative of the mindset that he wasn’t good enough. The intimate letters he wrote Judy really drive this truth home because those pages possess every emotion he felt, battled, repressed, and betrayed. It’s difficult not to empathize with his plight since it’s obvious that a lack of self worth was crushing his very soul almost from the second fame arrived.

It seems this result was a foregone conclusion as we hear Judy say he made certain she was willing to support them before pursuing his acting dream knowing he probably wouldn’t become successful. So the instant he did couldn’t help but ignite a devastating case of imposter syndrome exacerbated by a first season “SNL” hiccup of playing second-fiddle to Chevy Chase. Suddenly the thing he didn’t think possible became a need as control and power became vices. It wasn’t long before it appeared he might throw everything good in his life away. You could say his ability to turn things around, pursue music with Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers was never a bit), and reconcile with Judy was a miracle because it kind of was—one that couldn’t last.

As much as Belushi was a comedic powerhouse who made everyone around him laugh, he was also an albatross. Whether it was professionally (I love the “SNL” jokes constructed around his ego harming the show) or personally (fostering relationships that had both Judy and Aykroyd blaming themselves for not being there to stop him the day he died), John was as destructive as he was creative. The best artists usually are. Cutler therefore uses this look into Belushi’s life to expose the casualty of American success. That Candy and Farley ultimately followed his tragic footsteps only proves how our country’s desire to profit and feed off talent rather than preserve it plays a huge factor in the deteriorating mental health of artists and the digging of early graves.

[1] John Belushi. Photo Credit Judy Belushi Pisano – Courtesy of SHOWTIME.
[2] John Belushi. Photo Credit Michael Gold – Courtesy of SHOWTIME.
[3] John Belushi. Photo Credit Richard McCaffrey – Courtesy of SHOWTIME.

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