The concept of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” has long cemented itself as a certain ideal of the aspirational celebrity lifestyle. But as many narratives and documentaries have proven, there can be a fatal downside to the fast life of fame and success. R. J. Cutler’s new documentary Belushi looks back on the life one such ill-fated celebrity, telling a rise and fall narrative that is all too familiar.
Belushi is the story of John Belushi, a Chicago native of Albanian descent who was born 1949 with a rare talent for performing. Coming from humble beginnings in the suburbs, he was expected to take over the diner owned by his father. But Belushi had his sights set on bigger dreams, honing his craft in plays, a high school band and using any other opportunity to entertain. His knack for comedy would eventually provide his golden ticket, when he recruited by the famous improv group The Second City. From there, he went on to become one of the most popular entertainers of his time, before his addictions to heroine and cocaine led to his ultimate demise at the age of 33.
Culter frames Belushi’s rise and fall around previously unreleased audiotapes recorded by some of his closest friends and colleagues, including famous actors like Carrie Fisher and Dan Aykroyd. Played over archival footage, home videos and photographs, they give viewers a sense of his compassionate personality and the great impact he made in his relatively short life. Cutler also includes a few animated sequences in Belushi to reenact key moments of the man’s life.
Despite the inherent value of the various reminiscences, there is a deeper personal touch that feels lacking throughout Belushi. His talent, drug addictions and devotion to his high school sweetheart and later wife Judith are hardly revelatory. And much of the footage involves television and film clips that have been seen before. It’s therefore hard not to mentally compare Belushi with better filmmaking efforts like Amy, Listen to Me Marlon and Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, each of which offered a more rigorous analysis of the artists’ work and more revelatory insights from the artists themselves.
Ultimately, Belushi feels like little more than a well-edited showreel with a few stylistic flourishes. It therefore works well as a celebration of his comedic and musical talent, but it hardly lets us in to his inner life. Of course, there are worse things you can do than watch a compilation of hilarious clips from Saturday Night Live, Animal House and The Blues Brothers. At the same time, you’d probably be more satisfied by watching those esteemed works than this run of the mill documentary.