Belushi Review – A Wild, Zany, and Heartbreaking Tribute

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Belushi, a Showtime Documentary, presents a tribute to John Belushi, one of the greatest physical comedians of the twentieth century, wild, zany, and heartbreaking as he followed his dream of making people laugh while ultimately fighting drug-induced demons.

Directed and written by R.J. Culter, Belushi features in audiotapes and previously unseen footage John Belushi, Judith Belushi-Pisano, Jim Belushi, Chevy Chase, Carrie Fisher, Dan Aykroyd, Penny Marshall, Harold Ramis, Gida Radner, Jane Curtain, Lorne Michaels, Bruce McGill, Candice Bergen, Don Novello, Ivan Reitman, Joe Flaherty, Tony Hendra, Tino Insana, Richard D. Zanuck, Eugine Ross-Leming, Chris Miller, and Anne Beatts.


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The film begins with John Belushi auditioning for "Saturday Night Live." His ability to create sketch comedy simply by arching his eyebrows was just an indication of his ability to work the audience. John Belushi was funny, really funny and soon the world would know it.

Chronically presented the film begins in Wheaton, Illinois, with voice over from Judy Belushi, who provides much of the picture outside of his professional aspiration. We see them in caricature, as she describes the first time they met.

Through snapshots and home movies we see him growing up in Wheaton, his family, Albanian immigrants, a hard-working father, a loving mother, and John the center of attention, as he knew at a young age he had a gift.

We see him in High School, voted the Prom King, and as Judy describes it was indictive of her life with John, as his distinction left her on the sidelines. Summer stock earned him reviews and lit a comedic fire.


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A trip to Chicago's Second City solidified his career and while not sure if he could make a living, he knew that was all he wanted to do in life. So, to hear the scene described, he said, essentially, I'm on this ride and as much as I want you to come along, "you'll have to be prepared to support me." And there it was she was ready.

It wasn't long after he went to college and formed a comedy sketch act. It was the summer of 1968, he protested with Judy and another friend "ten feet" from the melee at the Democratic National Convention and ten feet from stardom.

With one audition at the Second City Theater in Chicago he was hired as an on-stage performer. No on-stage performer had ever been hired who hadn't been in the troupe first. It would change his life, and the world of comedy, forever.

For John this was his life. The drive to be successful, to make people, and the need for the live audience response, drove him. His comedic career quickly progressed with stints in Lemmings with an spot on impression of Joe Cocker, "The National Lampoon Radio Hour," where we meet Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, and others who would continue working with him.

The audio interviews with Harold Ramis explain the John and Judy were the adult couple of the group. It was their house that had the Thanksgiving Dinners, where everyone hung-out, where they could have a "normal" existence. And where they realized they might just be as good at this comedy stuff as they thought they were. It was the time before the Big time, and it was good.


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Of course, "Saturday Night Live" came next and after a season playing second to Chevy Chase, he became the star. This is where we are introduced to Dan Aykroyd, who describes their friendship as an immediate "love," and they each saw the worth in each other from the beginning.

After this the ride went full throttle with "Saturday Night Live," television fame, the forming of The Blue Brothers Band, and of course movie stardom with Animal House and the iconic and unforgettable cultural phenomena. Belushi had arrived.

The film is filled with great memories of "Saturday Night Live," the early days, and of course it is also filled with the backstory, the trouble behind the scenes. Even while he often protested, I'm only a sketch player, his desire for success drove him.

The documentary also explains the drug use. Smoking pot was part of the counter-culture experience and it wasn't this dark shadow lurking to devour.

When he made it to the big time, the drug use progressed hand in hand, and the buzz from the weed was never enough. Burning the candles at both ends, wake and bake, cocaine to kill the exhaustion, alcohol to come down later, a few hours' sleep, for days, weeks, months on end. John and drug addiction became synonymous.


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The documentary, without live interviews, uses black and white caricatures of John as a child, making jokes at dinner, perfecting his funny accents, listening to Jonathan Winters and Bob Newhart, and learning what made people laugh. The caricatures also show John the adult transformed into John the boy as a new character or as a creative idea would jump out at him.

The documentary is also supplemented with profoundly personal letters from him, to his girlfriend at the time and later his wife. The letters are genuine, real, heartfelt, funny, and toward the end intensely intimate emotionally. Admitting he was a drug addict and sorry for the spirals, the high highs, and the unbearable lows, and how that had affected her and them.

The deeply sad ending is accompanied by voice over and audio interviews from Dan Aykroyd and Judy Belushi, who each understood the dangers of leaving him alone. The demons returned and won the fight.

At 109 minutes, Belushi is laugh out loud funny, thoughtful, well-told, and deeply heartbreaking. It premieres on Showtime November 22, 2020. Showing at the 2020 AFI FILM FEST presented by Audi, Belushi is available nationwide through this link: https://watch.eventive.org/afifest.

       

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