The comedian and actor’s legacy is usually presented as a reductive cliché: He was a brilliant (but tortured) creative genius (and addict) who died too young. Belushi in a bee costume on the first season of Saturday Night Live is a pop culture touchstone, but few people know he hated how popular the skit became.
A few years ago, I wrote a screenplay titled America’s Guest, about Belushi walking off the set while filming The Blues Brothers in Chicago and then inviting himself into a stranger’s home for dinner. While my script (which is now in development) is a fictionalized account, the event actually happened. I first came across this anecdote while reading Tanner Colby’s 2005 biography, Belushi (coauthored by Judith Belushi Pisano); now, 15 years later, the audio from Colby’s interviews serves as the backbone of a new Showtime documentary.
Premiering September 27 and directed by R.J. Cutler, the documentary, also titled Belushi, approaches its subject as a person rather than as a caricature. The film offers nearly two hours of photos and home videos of the Humboldt Park native in private moments and is overlaid with audio interviews from many of the usual suspects (Dan Aykroyd, John Landis, Lorne Michaels), including those now gone (Harold Ramis, Carrie Fisher, Penny Marshall). The most imaginative moments come in a series of animated vignettes. Drawn in a clean-line, almost comic book style by Robert Valle, these sequences symbolically blur the lines between Belushi’s childhood and adulthood. In one, a grown Belushi sits on the couch drinking a beer while watching a samurai movie on television, but as he leans into the light emanating from the set, he becomes a wide-eyed child. Belushi was a kid at heart, and these moments bring that to life.
If your Belushi knowledge begins with a few SNL skits and ends with the food-fight scene in Animal House, Cutler’s documentary serves as an eye-opening look into the private world of a complex man. And if you’re a fanboy who wrote a screenplay about him, there’s still plenty of previously unseen images to add to your mental Belushi library. Of course, feel free to ignore ones with the bee costume.