'Treasure trove' of tapes helped filmmaker create John Belushi documentary

  • John Belushi's life, including his early years in Wheaton, is the subject of the documentary "Belushi."

    John Belushi's life, including his early years in Wheaton, is the subject of the documentary "Belushi." Judy Belushi Pisano/Courtesy of Showtime

 
 
Updated 10/15/2020 11:00 AM

Most biographical documentaries merely inform us about their subjects.

Then there's R.J. Cutler's "Belushi," a biographical doc that in 108 fleet minutes achieves something amazing: We don't simply know more about his subject, John Belushi -- we come to actually know him.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Belushi, who spent his formative years growing up in Wheaton, died of a cocaine and heroin overdose at the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles on March 5, 1982.

"Belushi," the story of his life, will have its world premiere Wednesday at Pilsen's ChiTown drive-in when it opens the 56th Chicago International Film Festival. The film will also be available virtually until Oct. 25, with tickets sold through the fest's website. It premieres Nov. 22 on Showtime.

Fans already know about the cherubic devil who used Chicago's storied Second City as a springboard to achieve stratospheric stardom.

"Belushi" was created from recorded conversations with friends and family after the comedian's death.
"Belushi" was created from recorded conversations with friends and family after the comedian's death. - Michael Gold/Courtesy of Showtime

Consider this triple crown of entertainment: In 1978, Belushi starred in a hit film ("National Lampoon's Animal House"), had the No. 1 album in the country ("The Blues Brothers' Briefcase Full of Blues") and led the cast of the most influential show on television ("Saturday Night Live").

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Throwing together a documentary on this guy should have been easy. Right?

Wrong.

"There are very few interviews that he did on camera," director R.J. Cutler said.

"There are very few radio interviews and there are very few home movies. Figuring out how to capture that life, how to communicate that life, that was the principal riddle of this film."

Cutler, a famed documentarian known for his critically acclaimed works "The War Room," "A Perfect Candidate" and "Listen To Me Marlon," summed up his "Belushi" experience this way: "It was a puzzle, this film."

And it was a doozy.

His interviews with people who knew the performer fell short of capturing his life.

The documentary "Belushi," about the late comedy icon and Wheaton native, will have its world premiere when it opens the 56th Chicago International Film Festival. It premieres Nov. 22 on Showtime.
The documentary "Belushi," about the late comedy icon and Wheaton native, will have its world premiere when it opens the 56th Chicago International Film Festival. It premieres Nov. 22 on Showtime. - Judy Belushi Pisano/Courtesy of Showtime
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Their memories were getting foggy," Cutler said. "They tended to talk more about themselves than John. This was no good. I wanted something with immediacy, authenticity. Then I discovered this treasure trove of audiotapes."

Soon after Belushi's death, his wife, Judy, began amassing an oral history of his life through taped phone conversations with people who knew him, including Dan Aykroyd, Gilda Radner, Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis, Jim Belushi and director Ivan Reitman.

The sense of loss and disbelief could still be heard in their voices. Fifty hours of voices.

"When we discovered these tapes in Judy's basement in Martha's Vineyard, we realized there it is!" Cutler said. "The raw wire. It's real!"

A huge chunk of that puzzle began to take shape.

But there was now another problem for Cutler.

He had the authentic testimonials he wanted, but they consisted of old audiotapes. Nothing visual for a highly visual medium.

So, he reached out to Robert Valley, an animator whose work he greatly admired. They came up with animated re-enactments that pole vault from poignancy to hilarity with a single upraised eyebrow.

Cutler solved a similar problem with presenting the comedian's surprisingly candid and emotionally touching love letters to his wife, also a Wheaton native. Instead of merely reading the letters -- some of them heartbreaking ("I'm afraid I'm so far gone," Belushi writes near the end) -- we see the words being magically written on the page as "SNL" alum Bill Hader reads them.

More parts of the puzzle solved. But it was still 3 hours long.

"We could have spent an hour in Wheaton," Cutler said. "We could have spent an hour on his childhood. Or on high school. He had such a remarkable career with his football playing. There was so much more we could do with this film. But I will tell you this: I wouldn't change a frame of this film."

R.J. Cutler directed the documentary "Belushi."
R.J. Cutler directed the documentary "Belushi."

So, after living with John Belushi's story for several years, does Cutler have any theories on how being raised in Wheaton shaped and influenced the person Belushi became?

"He was the son of immigrants from Albania," Cutler answered. "His father barely spoke English. He always had the sense of being an outsider, and that informed everything that he did.

"It's what eventually made him the outlaw. It's what allowed his eyebrow raise to be so meaningful. It's what gave him his keen observation about what it meant to be a blue-collar, working-class American. It's what let him see everything so clearly, even if it caused him pain to be the outsider.

"And he was a man who, wherever he went, created family around him."

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