Bluto, the volcanic Samurai Futaba, “Joliet” Jake Blues, the Cheeseburger Man, a spasmodic Joe Cocker—the list of characters John Belushi brought to life in his all-too-brief but remarkable career only hints at his outsized role in American comedy.
“This guy was pure visionary,” marvels R.J. Cutler, director of the Showtime documentary Belushi about the late film star and original Saturday Night Live cast member. “[His] work remains vital to this very day.”
To make his biographical film Cutler initially reached out to many of Belushi’s famous contemporaries. But that only took him so far.
“I spent a fair amount of time [chatting] with folks who had known John, and I started to feel like the stories they were telling me were kind of lost in the foggy haze of memory. They felt a little like, ‘These are the stories I tell when I tell stories about John Belushi,’” Cutler recalls. “What they didn’t have was a kind of raw immediacy and presence, the very things that I felt strongly a movie about John Belushi would need.”
The filmmaker discovered a cache of taped interviews that contained that raw immediacy—long hidden away in boxes stored in the basement of a house Belushi had shared with his widow, Judy Belushi. The conversations were recorded in the 1980s after the publication of Bob Woodward’s book Wired, which had displeased Judy and other family members for its emphasis on Belushi’s wild drug use and death, rather than on his artistic contributions.
“Those tapes had never been heard by anybody. So we took them and we listened to them and we found the foundation for our film,” Cutler tells Deadline. Many of those who shared their thoughts on those tapes have since died. “It gave us access to those to whom we otherwise would not have had it—Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis, Penny Marshall.”
Whether alive today or having joined Belushi in the great beyond, those who spoke on the tapes painted an intimate portrait of their friend and colleague.
“We learn about the origins of Saturday Night Live from Lorne Michaels and so many of the people who were around them…We learn about John’s [early] years in National Lampoon from Matty Simmons,” Cutler notes. “We learn about the movies, The Blues Brothers and Animal House, from John Landis. We learn about John as a human being from Penny Marshall…and we learn about his whole life from Judy Belushi, who was kind enough to allow me to interview her multiple times over a two-year period.”
The film also includes tender and self-searching letters Belushi wrote to his wife. The two had met as kids in Chicago.
“They were high school loves, first romance, and he was a very open communicator,” Cutler observes. “He expressed that [emotional openness] in these beautiful letters that he wrote to her not only while they were in high school but throughout his entire life, and having access to that and then having the great good fortune to have Bill Hader accept our invitation to read them—he doesn’t ‘perform’ John and yet he captures his heart and his soul.”
The film, an Oscar contender this year, doesn’t dwell heavily on Belushi’s drug abuse, but neither does it ignore the subject.
“We tried to tell the full story and we tried to tell the complete life and part of that life story, of course, is an almost lifelong battle with addiction,” Cutler notes. “Carrie Fisher so poignantly and powerfully speaks to this. She and John recognized each other as addicts in addition to being dear friends and she speaks about this in the film in a very powerful and emotional way. Certainly this was something we never thought to shy away from because it needed to be understood as we were understanding who John Belushi was.”
Belushi died of an overdose of cocaine and heroin in a bungalow of the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood in March 1982. He was 33. The manner of his death is really just a coda to Belushi.
“I didn’t want…to make [a film] about how did John Belushi die,” the director insists. “I wanted to make a film about how did John Belushi live.”
Almost 40 years after his death, Belushi’s performances remain startlingly fresh. He was a wrecking ball of a performer, who threw himself into characterizations with titanic energy. Time has not dimmed affection for him among fans, both non-famous and famous.
“People had such love for John and such love for Judy that Lorne Michaels was instrumental in arranging for us to be able to use all that footage from Saturday Night Live at an affordable rate, let’s call it,” Cutler reveals. “And Sir Paul McCartney was instrumental in allowing us to use ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ as the closing music that John performs over the credits, which could have been prohibitively expensive and yet he granted us a license to use that at a favored nations rate that we could afford. The film could not have been made without this series of acts of generosity.”
After the family’s disappointment with Wired, Cutler may have felt nervous at the prospect of Belushi’s loved ones seeing his film. But evidently he needn’t have worried.
“[Judy Belushi] responded in a way that a filmmaker can only hope…My heart was full,” Cutler says. “Jim Belushi had [a] wonderful response. We’ve been very, very gratified by the family’s reaction to the film.”