There are many reasons to recommend “Belushi,” the new documentary about the late, great Saturday Night Live star and film comedian. The 108 minute film is available for streaming now on Showtime and Crave.
Most people already know this story does not have a happy ending. In the hands of a great documentarian such as R.J. Cutler, however (“The War Room,” the upcoming “Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry”), you meet the man behind the myth. Cutler sets up his working class roots; his raging insecurities as well as his fragile, co-dependant and nonetheless often quite loving relationship with his wife, Judith.
It’s her voice you hear in one of the many rare audio recording used throughout the documentary. Other famous voices include Belushi’s brother, Jim, his SNL cast mates Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtain and others, SNL boss Lorne Michaels, departed friends Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis and Penny Marshall; still with us pals John Landis, Ivan Reitman, Joe Flaherty and many others.
While friends, family and even many strangers clearly loved hanging out with the guy, none seemed able to save him from himself. Co-workers who endured, tolerated and complained about his bad behaviour are not the loudest voices in this doc; Michaels gives some hint of his exasperation behind the scenes on SNL.
Hearing these voices but not seeing their faces is an effective move used to great success in “Laurel Canyon” and other recent rock documentaties. There are no old faces to pull you out of the “now” of the narrative.
Visually, the doc is dazzling, with plenty of clips from Belushi’s work on SNL (including the “Cheeseburger” sketch), “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers.” There is, I find, a slight over-reliance on a technique exploited in Judd Apatow’s recent “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling”– having the dialogue written in script across the screen in real time as the voices are being heard. A little of that goes a long way I find.
What I couldn’t get enough of, and there’s a lot of it, is the animation. Full credit goes to Robert Valley, the Canadian-born animator whose stylish work dates back to Gorillaz music videos as well as “TRON: Uprising.” His graphic caricatures of Belushi are full of energy and capture his essence whether in full-throated blues wailing or mumbling through awkward interview moments. I never realized what a cartoon character John Belushi was until Valley brought his muscular eyebrows fully to life. He draws a hilarious Aykroyd, too.
The documentary does not linger over Belushi’s death, at 33, in one of the Chateaux Marmont cottages on Sunset Boulevard. Cutler, in my opinion, made the right call. You can look that up if you want to. This movie shows why he was special, provides insight into why he couldn’t handle the sudden, enormous fame that came his way and pulls the sheet up at the end. Cue the soul music, and roll credits.