You’ve probably seen John Belushi’s screen test for Saturday Night Live. It’s been floating around the internet for a while and shows up on the occasional SNL original-cast docs. Part of the four-minute clip opens R.J. Cutler’s Belushi, his portrait of the comedian premiering on Showtime (starting November 22nd). By the time he got to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the Chicago-born, Albanian American 26-year-old had already become the Tasmanian devil of Second City’s stage shows, the standout of National Lampoon‘s off-off-Broadway satire Lemmings, and Michael O’Donoghue’s substitute as the director of the humor magazine’s radio show. He’d been in a garage band, met both his soulmates — future wife Judy Belushi Pisano (née Jacklin) and future blues sibling/partner-in-crime Dan Aykroyd — developed a healthy ego, and tried cocaine. Belushi did not want to do TV, and he told the Canadian producer of this late-night endeavor as much. His television set at home is allegedly covered in spit. What could this inferior, trash medium possibly do for him?
Yet somehow, thanks to the kindness of colleagues and the badgering of friends, Belushi has found himself sitting in front of a green screen, cameras trained on him, listening to Lorne Michaels and several unidentified voices offscreen prompting him. Contempt is oozing off of him in waves, but so is the charisma and the ain’t-I-a-stinker charm. He warms up — some whiplash takes to the right and left, a half-dozen cartoonish eyebrow raises, a glimpse of the Blutos and Joliet Jakes to come — and, per request, does his Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger impersonations. (Watch the full thing, and you can hear Michaels yell “John, don’t do that again,” when Belushi shamelessly mugs for his audience.)
Regrettably, we don’t get to see the rest of his audition, including the rough version of his samurai character that clinched the deal, though we do hear John describe it. But everything else is there in that clip in miniature: the anti-authoritarian attitude, the fuck-you irreverence, the dangerous unpredictability, the freakishly good mimicry, the chops, the timing, the volume, the way the camera simply swoons over this swarthy, handsome, hippie caveman. You can watch this a million times, and the awe never goes away. Belushi is already a known quantity, an MVP in sick-comedy circles, a medium-size fish in a small pond. The fish and the pond are about to become a lot bigger. He’s on the cusp of turning into “Belushi.” It is not his beginning. But it is, in so many ways, the beginning of the end.
Posthumous portraits of artists gone before their time, the supernovas who burned bright then burned out, all come with a built-in car-wreck fascination — and Belushi is, for better or for worse, no different. There’s a formula for these types of docs, in which we know the youngster who gets his first guitar, the jock who gets bit by the theater bug, et al., are going to ascend to great heights; that they’ll achieve fame beyond their wildest dreams and still be left wanting; that they’ll fill the void with excess and expensive thrills; and that the final act is littered with mourning fans, brokenhearted loved ones, backslides, interventions, and a sickening sense of inevitability. With Belushi, this narrative is particularly unavoidable. He was the ultimate comedian-as-Seventies-rock-star even before he stepped onstage at the Universal Amphitheatre in front of 7,000 people, cartwheeling over to the mic to belt out R&B covers alongside Stax all-stars.
And, as the doc reminds us, John was also an extraordinary creature of appetites. We know what fame does to such people. “He’s on the most popular comedy show of our generation, he’s in the most successful comedy film ever, and now he’s onstage fronting an amazing band,” says his friend Harold Ramis. “My first thought was, how great for him. My second thought was … he’s not going to survive this.”
What Belushi can add to this oft-recounted tale of John Belushi, superstar, is a treasure trove of recorded interviews used by author Tanner Colby for his 2005 oral-history biography. John’s widow was involved, which meant that Colby was able to get a lot of people on the phone who, post-Wired, might have been reluctant to talk. The protectiveness over his legacy that’s normally front and center in the look-back-in-anger (and love) reminiscing is replaced by testimonies with a bit more candor; you get family, childhood friends, and the usual suspects (Aykroyd, Michaels, Chevy Chase, John Landis, Ivan Reitman) talking about the sweetness and the ugliness that Belushi was capable of. Because these conversations took place almost two decades ago, you get to hear the voices of Ramis, Carrie Fisher, Penny Marshall, and National Lampoon‘s Matty Simmons, among other folks no longer with us, one more time.
Cutler understands how to use these oral-history memories to either pump up the greatest-hits reels (“I told him to channel Harpo Marx and Cookie Monster”; cue Animal House‘s cafeteria scene) or counter the idea that he was nothing but the Me Decade’s raging id made manifest. He occasionally drops in retro-looking animation, which doesn’t add or detract so much as fill in gaps. You want rarely-seen stills of the star from his high school days or in his off-hours? You got ’em. The decision to enlist Bill Hader to read John’s letters to Judy — some of which were romantic, some of which were conciliatory and confessional, all of which are heart-wrenching to hear now — is inspired, notably because Hader isn’t trying to do Belushi’s voice beyond a slight Chicago inflection. He’s going for the emotion. There’s a tendency to view the star as someone larger than life, which Belushi himself cultivated in his persona — the Wild Man of Gross-Out Comedy. But he was also a human being, and while that seems self-evident, it’s easy to forget this when we talk about screen icons. If Belushi does nothing else, it does a fine job of scaling him back down to size without giving his immense talent short shrift.
It also handles his death tastefully if a little too tamely, though once again, Cutler knows what he’s doing — he wants to emphasis the tragedy over the tabloid details, the loneliness and despair Belushi was experiencing on that last night rather than who he was doing drugs with and what went wrong. That restraint from rubbernecking, here and elsewhere, doesn’t stop the doc from occasionally becoming maudlin or sentimental to a fault. Then again, that’s what you expect with these type of celebrity wakes. No one is reinventing the tribute-doc wheel here, and the rise-and-fall arc remains the same; all that changes are the details. Insights past the usual “what a force of nature he was” eulogies are scarce. Belushi isn’t aiming for much more then getting the record straight one more time, tipping that bluesman fedora once again, a last waggling of the eyebrows before those endless final bows. That you still want to keep basking in the “But nooo!”s and Joe Cocker imitations and food-fight exclamations ad infinitum is the ultimate tribute to its subject. You’d even sit through a decent-enough greatest-hits rehashing to rewatch them.