REVIEW: ‘Belushi’ is a vibrant, unflinching portrayal of a comedy legend

Still+of+John+Belushi+in+%22Animal+House%2C%22+one+of+his+most+famous+roles.

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Still of John Belushi in “Animal House,” one of his most famous roles.

When the word “Chicago” is brought up in the entertainment industry, there are a number of famous faces that are immediately, intrinsically associated with the city — Bill Murray, Chance the Rapper, and, of course, John Belushi. The legendary actor, comedian and musician, who died tragically at the tender age of 33, is the subject of a new documentary film about his life, aptly titled “Belushi.” 

The opening night headliner of the Chicago International Film Festival, “Belushi’ is an incredibly vibrant, unorthodox take on a documentary that captures the paradoxical life of the iconic comedian. 

Belushi lived his life wearing many hats — not only was he a founding member of “Saturday Night Live,” he also enjoyed a film career with box office hits like “Animal House,” and, of course, featured his musical talents (alongside lifelong friend and comedic partner Dan Akroyd) in “The Blues Brothers,” which began as an SNL skit but went on to earn itself not only a film, but also a live album. 

With such a versatile and acclaimed career, it’s only fitting that the documentary about his life is all over the place — and in the best way possible. The film is mainly structured around a series of previously unreleased interviews conducted with some of Belushi’s closest friends, family, and coworkers — everyone from Chevy Chase to Carrie Fisher.

Dotted around the interviews, though, are a number of other elements that punch up “Belushi” from standard documentary fare. 

There are large portions of the film in which interviews with Belushi himself come to life through highly stylized 2-D animation, which depict Belushi almost like a mobster at times. 

The other key element of the film’s structure is a series of deeply vulnerable, honest letters Belushi wrote to his wife Judy, many of which are narrated by Bill Hader doing a pseudo-impression that comes off less comedic and more as a dedication to Belushi himself. At times, it does feel like you’re hearing Belushi read his own words, and what beautiful, vulnerable words they are. 

For a man who made a name for himself by playing characters who (by his own admission) could barely master the power of speech, Belushi’s letters to Judy are incredibly heartfelt and poetic. It’s incredibly tragic to read such sorrowful words knowing that as he was pouring his heart into these letters and telling his wife he didn’t know how to go on, he was putting on that silly Belushi face for the rest of the world and churning out movie after concert and TV show. 

From the get-go, it’s very clear that everyone interviewed had a genuine, intense fondness for the man, who was once described as “America’s Neighbor.” He got the nickname, we learn, because he once traipsed off the set of “The Blues Brothers” only to be found having walked into a random stranger’s house, saying “I’m John Belushi, please let me in,” and then proceeding to make himself a meal and sleep on their couch. 

The anecdote perfectly sums up what most of the people interviewed seemed to think of him — he had an uncanny humor and charm, but also a large ego, and a tendency for mischief-making that often got him in trouble and ultimately led to how he spiralled into depression and excessive drug use. 

That’s one of the film’s strongest qualities — just like the man himself, “Belushi” is full of contradictions, and isn’t afraid to cast a critical eye on its late subject, unflinching in its portrayal of both the good and the bad. The interviews with his peers make or break the film, so it’s a good thing that those who knew him best were ready and willing to talk about every aspect of the man, and not just the most flattering one. 

Interviews with Lorne Michaels, Dan Akroyd and some of his other early SNL cohorts tell the story of a man deeply jealous of Chevy Chase, and whose massive ego which frequently clashed with Michaels almost got him kicked off the show for good — not to mention a penchant for misogyny and a lack of respect for the show’s female cast. 

The documentary also never shies away from making it abundantly clear that Belushi struggled with substance abuse from the early days of his career. It seems that other than his wife Judy, drugs (most commonly, cocaine) are the most significant thru-line in the film’s narrative — always with Belushi in every step of his short but bright career.

Although at this point the concept of comedians using comedy to mask a secret, depressive dark side is so common it’s almost a cliche, it’s unfortunately very applicable in Belushi’s life.

Despite his successes in television and with films like “Animal House” and “Blues Brothers,” Belushi never seemed satisfied with himself or with his work, and before those who knew him best could figure out what was going on when he needed them most, he died of a combination cocaine and heroin overdose. 

Despite his untimely and tragic death, though, John Belushi brought joy and levity to the lives of millions of Americans, helped found one of the most influential comedy groups of all time, and established a storied film career all before he even turned 35. 

R.J. Cutler’s “Belushi” is a fitting and formidable documentary that captures the vibrant fierceness of the late great comedy and musical star.