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‘Raw, immediate’ voices tell John Belushi’s story in Showtime film

To profile the comedian, documentary director R.J. Cutler uses old audio tapes, scenes from Belushi’s films and even animation.

John Belushi was heavily involved in recruiting comic talent to join him for the launch of “Saturday Night Live,” says R.J. Cutler, director of a film about the late comedian.
Michael Gold/Courtesy of Showtime

John Belushi’s life story has been told again and again, and yet the documentary “Belushi” (premiering Sunday on Showtime) is an original and particularly captivating chronicle of the star-crossed comic genius’ life and times, thanks in large part to a treasure trove of audio interviews with friends and colleagues and loved ones of the Wheaton-raised legend, including Dan Aykroyd, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase and Lorne Michaels, as well as the departed Harold Ramis, Carrie Fisher and Penny Marshall.

“Belushi” director R.J. Cutler weaves archival footage of Belushi with the illuminating interviews — and uses graphic-novel style animation to illustrate key moments in Belushi’s life, from his childhood to his first visit to Second City to his madman offscreen antics.

“This was 45 years in the making, if you go back to the time when I was a kid watching TV in my parents’ living room and I saw the first episode of ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” said Cutler in a recent Zoom chat. “Fast forward years later, to the tragic early passing of John from an overdose, and in the wake of his passing, [his widow] Judy Belushi and a couple of her journalist friends started putting together an oral history of John’s life from the people who knew him best. Those audio tapes were sitting in a box in the basement of Judy’s house on Martha’s Vineyard when we started working on this film all those years later. They represent this kind of raw, immediate, present series of memories and descriptions of what John’s life was like, told and shared by the people who knew him best.”

The documentary reminds us that most of the star players from the first cast of “Saturday Night Live” started with National Lampoon stage shows and the National Lampoon radio hour and were recruited by Belushi. Says Cutler, “For all the extraordinary achievement that Lorne Michaels deserves credit for in his decades of success with ‘Saturday Night Live,’ the guy that put most of that cast together first, that was John Belushi. He collected all of those folks first. He was a visionary.”

Cutler drops in specific scenes from Belushi’s various films to complement where John was in his offscreen life, Chicago police cars careening all over the place and crashing into one another in “The Blues Brothers” as the film focuses on John spiraling out of control.

“You’re always looking for [something] that resonates, especially when you’re dealing with somebody who’s in movies, or is a musician,” said Cutler. “The gods are smiling on you when you work with brilliant editors who find those moments.”

“Belushi” director R.J. Cutler’s documentary credits include “The War Room” and “Listen to Me Marlon.”
John Sciulli/Getty Images

As for the animated sequences, Cutler said they were necessary because for all of Belushi’s on-camera performance work and his larger-than-life persona, he could often be reserved around the media and didn’t encourage constant filming and recording in his down time. (No doubt his bouts with addiction played a role in such hesitancy.)

“There wasn’t a lot of footage to work with,” said Cutler. “There were no iPhones recording every moment. And he was actually a very private guy, so there were very limited interviews available. And he would protect himself. But we did have access to his writing and his voice.” (Bill Hader voices Belushi’s letters in the film.)

John Belushi, in his Joliet Jake getup, flashes a pin of the Blues Brothers. The musical duo was like performance art, says “Belushi” director R.J. Cutler.
Richard McCaffrey/Courtesy of Showtime

Belushi will always be remembered for his outrageous comic turns as the Samurai et al. on “SNL” and Bluto in “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” but he considered himself an actor first and a comic second, as evidenced by his branching out with films such as “Neighbors” and “Continental Divide,” in which he played a Chicago newspaper columnist.

“It was Brando who he aspired to be,” says Cutler. “That was his hero. … Look at the Blues Brothers. That was performance art. The first time we saw the Blues Brothers on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ we didn’t know what to think. Was it supposed to be funny, or something else? It made your head explode.

“You see in the opening scenes of [the documentary], this enormous, delirious crowd [watching the Blues Brothers in concert], and that’s what he gave people, this almost incomprehensible feeling of joy, this thrill ride. That was John Belushi.”