Chevy Chase … Self
Written and directed by R.J. Cutler
Using previously unheard audiotapes recorded shortly after John Belushi’s death, director R.J. Cutler’s documentary examines the too-short life of once-in-a-generation talent who captured the hearts and funny bones of devoted audiences. (Via IMDB.)
Why is it that comedians seem to experience the hardest lives? Remember Robin Williams, Chris Farley, and Phil Hartman? Brilliant artists ultimately undone by their own superstardom. Perhaps the fault lies with audiences demanding nothing less than hilarity at all times from these extraordinary people; or maybe the ruthless Hollywood system is to blame for its tendency to squeeze every ounce of talent from its creative visionaries before leaving them to rot when the money well dries up.
Belushi, Showtime’s fascinating documentary directed by R.J. Cutler, examines the tragic life of comedian John Belushi, whose reckless ways led to an untimely death at age 33; and suggests, in this case, it was probably a little bit of both.
Throughout the drama, friends describe Belushi as lovable and fun but also wildly out of control in every facet of his life. “He would walk on the stage and people would laugh,” said the late Harold Ramis of his Second City co-star. “There was something more comfortable about being me than being him.” Later, we learn that the comedian, during his downward spiral, was eyeing a dramatic picture to star in, but the studios, having been burned by the dramatic flop Continental Divide, wanted him for the Joy of Sex, a thankless comedy picture designed to appease the masses. “They wanted him to wear a diaper,” says Belushi’s closest friend Dan Aykroyd. “Hey, we’ll get Belushi to play the clown.”
The film also provides an alternative perspective and wonders if Belushi would have found success without the, ahem, magic powder, gallons of alcohol, and go-for-broke mentality that made him such a hit. Indeed, there’s something painfully ironic in watching an audience cheer on Belushi as he sings about drugs and alcohol, so enamored are they with the character that they forget the man behind the facade.
Make no mistake, John Belushi was a flawed individual whose abrasive personality at times clashed with co-stars (particularly the women) and alienated friends and family. He was also a lovable character who enjoyed helping others, loved making people laugh, and wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out for the little guy. Belushi pulls no punches in its dissection of its titular character and presents all sides of the figurative coin without ever judging the man.
Instead, the docudrama remembers Belushi for who he was, laments what he could have been and examines the choices that led to his death. Through this fascinating journey, friends such as Ramis, Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and Lorne Michaels (among others) recall their relationship with Belushi via phone interviews and taped discussions. We even get snippets of a radio interview featuring Belushi during a time in which fame had left him bitter and broken visualized via beautifully rendered animation.
We learn about Belushi’s relatively traditional upbringing alongside his stern father and mother, his stint at Second City and his meteoric rise to fame via Saturday Night Live that paved the way for National Lampoon’s Animal House and the wildly successful Blues Brothers. The man was a rock star. A legend in the making. And, surprisingly, a sensitive artist who enjoyed poetry and wrote touching love letters to his girlfriend.
When fame hit, it hit hard. “It was a descent into Hell,” one of Belushi’s cohorts explains. Then, just like that, it all went sideways.
A couple of flops in Steven Spielberg’s 1941, the aforementioned Continental Divide and the dark comedy Neighbors on top of his off screen antics left Belushi’s career reeling. A downward spiral ensued. He died on March 5, 1982, right around the time Aykroyd was putting the finishing touches on his script for Ghostbusters — a film written with Belushi in mind in the Peter Venkman role — leaving us to wonder what if?
“We’re all gonna suffer in life, might as well choose how we suffer,” Belushi exclaims at one point in the film. Indeed, the man lived big and died young. The documentary provides a haunting peek behind the scenes at a talented individual who gave his life to make the world laugh and asks a simple question: was it worth it?