The only problem with documentaries about famous deceased addicts is that the final half hour is always the same movie: denial and decline, loved ones wringing their hands in voice-over, letters and diary entries that spill out doomed self-loathing. A rehab moment of grace, a stubborn return to destruction. “Belushi,” a new film premiering on Showtime Sunday night at 9, tells us everything we might want to know about the late, great John Belushi’s life and more, and yet the final minutes felt to me like a virtual reprise of “Amy,” the 2015 Amy Winehouse documentary, and other tales of fallen celebrity. The grand individuality that makes these talents stand out disappears behind the drink or the drug. In the end, that’s all we see.
An oral history that leans heavily on interviews conducted by author Tanner Colby for a 2012 biography co-written with Belushi’s widow, Judith Belushi-Pisano, R. J. Cutler’s film starts with a bang: the comedian’s 1975 screen test for “Saturday Night Live.” Already a veteran of improv comedy and a star of two hit National Lampoon stage shows, Belushi is fully formed and utterly in command. He knew what he was and he knew he was ready to show us.
The film then backs up and fills us in on the early life in Wheaton, Ill., with a generous and satisfying assortment of early home movies and reminiscences from friends, all of which testify to Belushi’s drive, gifts, and insecurities. His future wife, Judy, was there almost from the beginning, and her voice-overs — supplemented by increasingly moving excerpts from Belushi’s letters, read by Bill Hader — provide a grounding that serves the documentary well over the long haul.
The irony was that Belushi was poised to become the first break-out star of “SNL” — until Chevy Chase broke out instead. Once Chase left, Belushi came into his own, and the only major fault of Cutler’s documentary is that the signature bits — the samurai, the killer bees, the “But Nooooo” guy, “Cheeseburger, cheeseburger” — are sampled in piecemeal snippets. Belushi was at his best when he was allowed to build, moving from soft-spoken sanity to a maelstrom of fury over the course of a two-minute sketch. We get the infamous Joe Cocker impression, flailing away next to the real thing; we’re reminded of his truly remarkable skills as a physical comedian; and we get most of my favorite skit, the “Little Chocolate Donuts” ad. But a full measure of the man’s art (and it was art) is missing.
“Animal House” and the Blues Brothers — skit, album, concert tour, and movie — come in for their share of glowing praise, and the roster of unseen interviewees is immense: Chase, Lorne Michaels, Harold Ramis, brother Jim Belushi, friend Penny Marshall, fellow addict Carrie Fisher, many “SNL” writers. Belushi’s widow and his best friend, Dan Aykroyd, are heard more than most, which seems fitting. Bill Murray is conspicuously absent and fellow Player Jane Curtin is one of the few to testify to the more misogynistic side of working with Belushi, which is welcome for balance. That so many of the interviewees are themselves now dead may give pause. It was so very long ago, yet because “SNL” remains against all odds a cultural totem, it seems like yesterday.
As mentioned, the final third of “Belushi” is a drama of ups and downs and down and outs, all of it leading to an inexorable end that a lot of people saw coming and no one did enough to stop. It is terribly sad and one more reminder that fame on a mass level can be a curse. Why the best ones rarely feel they deserve it remains a mystery this movie doesn’t try to solve.
Written and directed by R.J. Cutler. Starring: John Belushi, the Not Ready for Prime Time Players; featuring the voices of Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Judith Belushi-Pisano, Carrie Fisher, and many others. Available on Showtime. 108 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, addiction issues, mountains of cocaine)