Review by Sean Boelman
John Belushi’s story is arguably one of the most devastating in comedy history, a rags-to-riches tale ending in the saddest way possible, but R.J. Cutler’s Belushi reminds fans to remember him not as a tragic figure, but as a wonderful and troubled person. Part standard bio-doc and part exploration of addiction, this is a documentary that is affecting in all the right ways.
In the film, Cutler tells Belushi’s story, from his childhood as a blue collar kid in Chicago to becoming one of the inaugural cast members of Saturday Night Live before his death at the young age of thirty-three. Much of this information is probably already well-known to Belushi’s fans, but it’s nice to remember his contributions regardless.
Cutler obviously has a great deal of respect and admiration for Belushi, especially when it comes to his contributions to comedy history, but he also doesn’t shy away from the darker side of his story. Belushi’s legacy speaks for itself, so Cutler doesn’t have to waste time trying to convince the viewer why he was so legendary.
The first half of the movie, which focuses on Belushi’s comedy career beginning with the Chicago improv scene and eventually leading to his spot on SNL is mostly conventional biography material. Belushi’s co-stars talk about their experiences working with him, and footage of his performances keeps things interesting by making the audience laugh.
It is when the film starts to discuss Belushi’s struggles with drugs that it begins to be really insightful. Everyone has their own explanation as to how and why Belushi got to the point he did, but the common thread is that he had some unresolved inner demons for which he needed help. And if people can see his story and be moved to find help or show compassion to someone struggling, it would have been a story worth telling.
The tone with which Cutler approaches the documentary is about as expected. There is a blend of nostalgia for the heyday of great comedy and sadness for the talent that was lost too soon, and it will almost certainly pull at viewer’s heartstrings. It’s a crowd-pleasing, sometimes tear-jerking documentary made for fans and general audiences.
That said, Cutler’s storytelling techniques are anything but average. He eliminates the dependence on talking heads, instead using audio interviews from shortly after Belushi’s passing accompanied by archive materials and animation. This allows the movie to feel lively and energetic, making it enjoyable to watch even in its more pedestrian moments.
Belushi is a wonderful tribute to the late comedian, but it works even better as an exploration of the battle that is drug addiction. It goes down a lot easier than it could, but there are still plenty of great moments that make it a worthy watch.
Belushi screened at the 2020 AFI FEST which runs virtually October 15-22.