Click here for the flashback interview with RJ Cutler for THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE.
Early on in R.J. Cutler’s documentary, BELUSHI, Harold Ramis talks about John Belushi’s enormous appetites for everything. It would be his downfall, the appetite for drugs, that is, but Cutler smartly focuses on the other appetites, the enormous ambition, and also the enormous capacity for love and for tenderness, which, as the film progresses, becomes the fuel for everything else. Or rather, the need for love, starting with the hole in his life caused by distant parents, particularly a father who didn’t get John’s sense of humor, and his innate need to perform. Brother Jim recalls him knocking on neighbors’ doors at age three and walking in to do a skit. It was the start of a life-long penchant for knocking on stranger’s doors and inviting himself in, resulting in one of his nicknames: America’s Guest.
Startlingly intimate, it features audio, heard here for the first time, of an oral history assembled for a never-completed oral history by journalist Tanner. Colby The voices of John himself, Carrie Fisher, Dan Ackroyd, Lorne Michaels, Harold Ramis, his brother, Jim, and a host of other from John’s life take us, courtesy of animations, stills, and home movies, from his boyhood in Wheaton IL, to his final hours. The inflection in the voices is as important as what they are saying, from Fisher’s analysis of why a year of unstructured sobriety couldn’t save him, to Saturday Night Live co-star Jane Curtin speaking about his disdain for women writers. That last is particularly telling. She’s obviously ticked, but there is still a sneaking affection, which is why she adds that he was no worse than any of the other men who accused him of sexism, and maybe not as bad.
It also includes the letters that John wrote to Judy, his high-school sweetheart and the love of his life. These reveal a man who was perhaps too much in touch with his feelings, with no way to sort out his contradictions, but who had no problem expressing them. It was this emotional immediacy, opines Ramis and others, that was the key to John’s appeal. Audiences could connect to this kinetic whirlwind with the prehensile eyebrows who was at once loveable and dangerously unpredictable. John was a creature of impulse, a quality that made Lorne Michaels as reluctant to hire him as John was reluctant to move from his enormous stage success to the medium of television. Michaels, quite presciently, labeled John as trouble. And he was. The struggles and battles on SNL comprise a good third of the film, as they should. And they are as entertaining, in their own way, as they are fascinating as they delve into the personalities and the 70s zeitgeist where being a rebel was expected, and doing drugs was de rigeur for the creative crowd.
Far more surprising, though, is the depth of the bond between John and Dan Ackroyd. As one of them puts it, it was love at first sight, and the two went on to become a formidable team on SNL before breaking out with The Blues Brothers. That last providing John with his teen dream of being a rock star that first evinced itself with his garage bands in high school. Ackroyd speaks from the heart on those tapes about the good times, and the bad, and by the time we get to the end of John’s life, the solitary death of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmot, the heartbreak is almost too much to bear.
Cutler carefully structures the story, starting with the 1978 Blues Brothers concert that would result in a platinum record and a cult film that was also a box-office success, and bringing it back to that moment before charting John’s downward spiral. By the time we return to that moment, which should have been the start of the next phase of a spectacular career, the seeds of self-destruction have been sown, and we can only look on with despair and empathy for all involved.
By the end, you don’t just weep for the work that he might have done, comedy and drama, if he had made through that dark night of the soul, but for the little boy, so loved by so many, who couldn’t find the capacity to love himself. He was a man of enormous talent, who didn’t understand why something that came so easily was so special, and a man who was respected, even adored, by those who didn’t click with him. A man who knew he was in trouble, as did those around him, but was as helpless as they were to save him. Whatever the demons were that refused to let John enjoy the success he achieved by age 30, they robbed us all. It’s Tony Hendra, the British director of one of John’s first great successes, National Lampoon’s Lemmings, that may have summed it up best, not just for John, but for the American Dream, which by all standards, John had achieved. When you get where you’re going, what then?