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John Belushi and the Cliché of the Celebrity Overdose

The compassionate Showtime documentary ‘Belushi’ depicts a brilliant comedian destroyed by his appetites. It’s a sad narrative — but, man, it’s the same movie we’ve seen a million times

Whenever John Belushi’s name comes up, I always think of Mike Royko, the revered Chicago columnist who knew the comic since he was a little kid. (Belushi would affectionately refer to the writer as “Uncle Mike.”) When Belushi died of a drug overdose in the spring of 1982, Rokyo wrote about Belushi and his family, never mentioning John’s death until the very end: “This column seems to have rambled. I’m sorry, but I just heard about John a few hours ago, and I have difficulty writing when I feel the way I do right now. He was only 33. I learned a long time ago that life isn’t always fair. But it shouldn’t cheat that much.”

Belushi’s death was a tragedy, cutting short a promising career and leaving his wife Judith a widow. And his overdose created ripples across Hollywood. “The Belushi tragedy was frightening,” Robin Williams later said. “His death scared a whole group of show-business people. It caused a big exodus from drugs.” 

Known for his explosive, physical comic performances — not only was he a bigger man, he seemed bigger than life — Belushi became a cautionary tale of a troubled artist cut down by addiction. Nonetheless, he inspired plenty of aspiring funnymen, some of whom seemed to emulate his live-fast-die-young persona. When Adam Sandler wrote a song about his late friend Chris Farley, he included a verse in which he recalled his buddy’s hard-partying ways: “We’d tell him, ‘Slow down, you’ll end up like Belushi and [John] Candy’ / He said, ‘Those guys are my heroes, that’s all fine and dandy.’” And, indeed, Farley died of an overdose at the same age as Belushi. “Let’s just say I had my share of fun,” Farley once said of his mammoth drug consumption. “I worry about talking about this, because I worry about kids who might think, ‘Whoa, man, that’s cool!’ Because in some ways, that’s what I did with my hero, Belushi. I thought that this is what you have to do to be cool. But all that shit does is kill someone. It is a demon that must be snuffed out. It is the end.” 

Belushi’s end is now so much part of his story that it’s hard to separate the talent from his demise. As a result, one of the great sorrows of his early death is that it turns his life into a cliché — that of another celebrity junkie. That’s a cruel simplification and, yet, he’s in grim company alongside other gone-too-soon greats like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and River Phoenix. These artists didn’t want to be defined by addiction, but their death creates an easy narrative arc, reducing all their achievements to one foolish, terrible last act.

On Sunday, Showtime airs Belushi, a documentary consisting of archival interviews conducted by author Tanner Colby for an oral history about the late comic that he co-wrote with Judith. Starting with Belushi’s boyhood in Wheaton, Illinois, and concluding with his death at the Chateau Marmont in L.A., Belushi is a guided tour through his life from the perspective of family, friends, collaborators and his widow. Director R.J. Cutler has done a commendable job of avoiding hyperbole — both in terms of capturing Belushi’s genius and depicting his downfall — and the film is informative and engaging. If you want to know why Belushi mattered, Belushi is a good starting point. 

But what it can’t do is escape a certain predictability. No matter how unique Belushi’s story is — the son of Albanian immigrants, he was a proud anarchist who was nonetheless crippled by insecurity — Cutler’s retelling renders it a bit trite. From the start of Belushi, death awaits him, an irrefutable fact that tinges everything we see and hear in a melancholy light. As radical a comic as he tried to be, his ending — and, therefore, part of his legacy — couldn’t have been more banal.

Everyone from Jim Belushi to Dan Aykroyd to Chevy Chase to Harold Ramis talks about Belushi, telling stories and giving their impressions of the Saturday Night Live megastar. (Because he’s only working with audio files, Cutler incorporates family photos, archival clips and animation to keep the documentary visually appealing.) What comes across strongest is that Belushi loved making people laugh, going over to neighbors’ houses as a kid to crack them up by doing impressions. He and Judith started dating as teenagers, and it’s a testament to Belushi that one of its main threads is her struggle to be with such a mercurial man, who no doubt loved her but was also a handful. (The documentary’s alternate narrative is how she eventually learned to let him go, knowing she couldn’t save him from his vices.) 

Interested in acting from a young age — as well as being in a band or, frankly, doing anything where you’d bring together a bunch of people to put on a show — Belushi found his calling after visiting Second City, telling Judith that that was what he wanted to do. From there came Saturday Night Live, hit movies like Animal House and the phenomenal success of the Blues Brothers. At one point, he simultaneously had the No. 1 album, film and TV show in America. That should have been a great life.

Of course, it wasn’t, and it’s no fault of Belushi’s interviewees that they fail to discuss Belushi’s battles with fame and drugs in ways that don’t sound hackneyed. Stardom made it harder for him to relate to people, we are told. Cocaine helped him cope with feelings of self-doubt. All the attention only exacerbated the gnawing void inside. And on and on. I don’t mean to be glib or unsympathetic — I don’t doubt for a second that Belushi’s problems were profound. In the nearly 40 years since his death, we’ve seen countless other examples of performers who were destroyed (or nearly destroyed) by celebrity and substances. But as a result, Belushi’s downward spiral feels supremely unoriginal. In Belushi, we’re merely marking time until he overdoses. His accomplishments are seen only through the lens of what happened afterward.

John Belushi in the Blues Brothers

Cutler probably couldn’t have told this story any other way. Pretending that Belushi didn’t make a terrible mistake — or, worse, romanticizing his death as some sort of badge of authenticity and an indication of how passionately he spent each day — would be far worse options. Belushi is sincere and heartfelt, mimicking the interviewees’ tone, which is one of wistful reminiscence. These people loved Belushi, but they also knew his faults, among them his occasional misogyny and unprofessionalism. (In one soundbite, we hear Belushi disparage “professionalism” — he wanted to be spontaneous, unpredictable, dangerous.) After all this time, they’ve forgiven him, but often he comes across almost more as a memory than as a person — a story with a sad ending.

Watching Belushi, you may think of other documentaries about artists who died young — maybe something like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck or Amy. Lord knows there’s been a whole slate of recent films each trying to sift through the pieces of a different tormented soul’s psyche. These types of projects can go spectacularly wrong: Belushi’s friends and loved ones despised Wired, the book Bob Woodward wrote in the 1980s that was dismissed as exploitative and sensationalistic. (The movie based on that book was equally vilified.) By comparison, Belushi is sensitive, heartbreaking and educational. It’s also rote.  

That’s why I still think of Royko, who Belushi based his journalist character in Continental Divide on. That was a change-of-pace role meant to show that he was more than the raging frat guy in Animal House. Maybe he had some depth to him. Instead, he died about six months later, his potential and his future thrown away. 

“I learned a long time ago that life isn’t always fair,” Royko wrote. “But it shouldn’t cheat that much.” Those words perfectly capture the gut-punch shock of losing someone far too young. But Belushi illustrates another way that life cheats: When a talented artist succumbs to drugs, he forfeits having the final word on what his existence meant. 

Especially as I get older, I find myself disappointed in Belushi as much as I mourn his loss. Yes, addiction is a horrible disease, and the movie reveals that he’d had suicidal thoughts — clearly, this was a man with demons. But while watching Belushi, I kept longing for Belushi to somehow be able to rewrite his narrative, to change his clichéd ending. He never got to grow old — he never got to see what he could have done next. 

It’s both a strength and a limitation of Belushi that it recognizes how unsatisfying the scope of its subject’s life feels. Forget his fans and his loved ones: John Belushi cheated himself by dying the way that he did. He deserved a better documentary than he got — but for that to have happened, he would have had to live a different life. The do-over he never received haunts the film.