From the Archives: Belushi captures the darkness, the warmth, and the genius of one of comedy’s greats

From the Archives: Belushi captures the darkness, the warmth, and the genius of one of comedy’s greats

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

When I was a kid, Chris Farley was my favorite. Everything about him made me laugh, and when he tragically died at such a young age, right at the dawn of what could have been a lifelong career, I was heartbroken. I remember lamenting to my dad that I had just sent a fan letter to Farley, and was upset that he probably never got to read it. My dad wasn’t great on the front of consoling a young comedy fan whose hero of the week had just expired, but he was great at using this moment to link me to other pop culture entities I may enjoy. I certainly have him to thank for bringing me to Halloween, Poltergeist, Goodfellas, and The Who, and looking back, I also have to give him credit for introducing me to John Belushi.

It was explained to me that Farley was largely considered a neo-Belushi in a lot of ways, and despite the many differences in their comedic styles, their similar exit pretty much sealed that stereotype into perpetuity, and if I’m being honest, it’s through this lens that I viewed so much of Belushi’s work during my formative years. It’s a dismissive way to categorize both performers, however, with their only connective thread being a type of humor uncharitably called “fatty falls down” in comedy circles. We’ve grown from such things as a society overall, but if we were to look back at the work of either man, we’d see that physical comedy based on either’s body type only makes up a small amount of what either did. And it was typically their weakest stuff.

Even being aware of the minimal connective tissue between Farley and Belushi, it wasn’t until watching Belushi, which aims at being the definitive account of its subject’s life and career, that I really understood both the true brilliance that Belushi exhibited in his humor, and also what the man represented as a cultural force. As one of the founding members of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players” on NBC’s Saturday Night (the Live was added later, and then was shortened to SNL since no one on the planet says the full title without mumbling), John Belushi entered the entertainment scene during a pivotal moment, and did so with all the subtlety of a hurricane. It’s hard to believe that his dalliance with mainstream fame was so criminally short, but the combination of timing, talent, and a skill set that was honed to perfection in his years as a theater actor, sketch comedian, and regular presence in all of National Lampoon’s media, ensured that his legend would deservedly live well beyond both his short life and the lives of all of his fans.

Belushi presents as an oral history of John Belushi’s life and work, with stories from an incredible roster of notable voices, mostly gathered from a collection of as yet unheard recordings of interviews conducted immediately in the wake of his passing. Dan Aykroyd, Penny Marshall, Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis, Jane Curtin, the list goes on. The inclusion of his brother James, and his wife Judy really bring the emotion home. It’s a fair portrayal of a man who was as talented as he was troubled, with the narration taking as much time to honor the man as it does illuminating the many instances in which he disappointed those around him. This takes some of the mythos out of things, as stuff like this often does, but also serves to humanize the man. Sure, watching “Bluto” Blutarsky hilariously navigate the lunch line is going to leave out Belushi’s personal darkness, but it also leaves out the warm, committed performer who sincerely loved those around him. Belushi manages to give us both, which makes his work that much more impressive in retrospect.

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A mix of performance footage, and crisp, clever animation, what we see on the screen is never not interesting. I get the sense that even a Belushi scholar would find the film engaging and informative. And really, it’s not the facts about his life that make the film compelling, but rather the recreated experience of watching Belushi interact with his craft, his fame, and his ego at a unique time where all three were both his biggest assets and most troubling hurdles. It chronicles his home life as a child (I had no idea he was Albanian!), his first attempts at showbiz in all forms, and they way it all affected his mental state (as evidenced in a series of heartbreaking letters to his wife Judy, read here lovingly by Bill Hader). An added bonus is that by following Belushi’s career arc, we are also treated to a thorough history of some of the biggest entities in comedy. National Lampoon, Saturday Night Live, Second City — all are represented here as huge cultural forces for which Belushi helped elevate the profile.

The only area where the doc stumbles is when it assesses the transgressive nature of the comedy that Belushi and friends were doing. A few clips are presented, but are edited to a point where the transgressive material has been removed. Not the hugest deal, since that’s not the focus of the film, but to declare the lasting effects of these comedic entities as groundbreaking while also editing them so as not to offend a modern audience is a weak point to make, and as a comedy/free speech purist who takes huge issue with the current world of hardcore comedy policing, it rubbed me the wrong way. I get it—an edgy joke is the most efficient way to sink just about anything these days—but I don’t like it. It’s a small complaint in an otherwise stellar flick.

At the end of the day, Belushi, as intended, will likely end up being the definitive documentary on the life of John Belushi, and deservedly so. It’s so well done that even if you haven’t ever heard of John Belushi, Animal House, The Blues Brothers, or even comedy on the whole, you’ll still find plenty to enjoy.

Belushi premieres this Sunday on Showtime.

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