'Belushi' Offers a Unique Sensory Experience of the Life of John Belushi

R.J. Cutler's impeccable archival film combines audio and visual elements to create an outstanding biography.

John Belushi documentary
Judy Belushi Pisano/Showtime

Every piece of visual media consists of images of the past, but archival material is a greater reminder of these ghosts. They’re always at least a little bit older than footage shot for the production in question. Watching an archival documentary is like gazing through a window out at the past. And we can tend to recognize how far back we’re looking. Audio media is different. We don’t always know from when we’re hearing a sound or voice. We also can’t determine the spatial qualities of a disembodied voice when listening to archival audio.

That is why R.J. Cutler‘s Belushi, an archival documentary centered around audio interviews going back almost forty years, arouses an even greater spectral sensation. As we watch the film and see photographs and motion pictures chronologically presenting the life story of John Belushi, we hear the voices of friends, family, and co-workers as they share details and anecdotal memories of the comedy icon. Voices that seem to come from the rafters or from behind the curtain of the show playing out in front of our eyes.

Most of the voices we hear were recorded in the 1980s by John Belushi’s widow, Judith Belushi Pisano, and author Tanner Colby for an oral history project (some of these same interviews were eventually used for their 2005 book Belushi: A Biography). Many of them belong to other people who’ve since died, including Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis, Penny Marshall, producer Richard D. Zanuck, Second City co-founder Bernie Sahlins, National Lampoon co-founder Matty Simmons, actor Tino Insana, and Saturday Night Live writer Tom Davis. John Belushi’s mother, Agnes, was also interviewed before her death in 1989.

The documentary doesn’t state how long ago these interviews were conducted, just their original purpose, and so there’s not much frame of reference for attempting to picture the people speaking. Not that we should be picturing them, as the point of archival documentaries using only audio interviews, rather than cutting to talking heads, is to keep the visual focus on the compilation of images on the screen. Maybe because we’re used to documentary interviews being current, there’s a feeling like these voices exist in the present, giving the impression that the deceased speakers are coming through from the afterlife.

Fisher, in particular, is one whose recognizable voice is a triggering presence, if not a distraction. She enhances more than she takes away, her association with drug addiction both literally addressed and reminded of especially as she talks about the final year of John Belushi’s life and on addiction in general. Her excerpts evoke more from us, and in that, may suggest the notion that all of the voices heard in the documentary are as much about the interviewees in their reception and perception of John Belushi as they are about the actual man in question.

While there are multiple levels to some if not all of those voices heard in the film, there are also different temporal planes experienced, likely unknowingly by most of the audience. Judith Belushi Pisano’s commentary is from new interviews recorded for the documentary. And Bill Hader voices the role of John Belushi in the reading of the film subject’s letters and other writings. Through the sound design, none of the voices sound any fresher or older than the rest, which flattens time and places them all on a level field, fuddling the mind of the viewer.

There is also a mixing of temporal planes in the visuals as the archival imagery is supplemented by animated sequences created for the film, directed by Oscar-nominee Robert Valley. These depict or literally imagine moments in John Belushi’s life not otherwise captured, such as events from his childhood as well as some scenes where there is an audio representation, via radio interviews or other archival sound recordings, but not visual. It’s not as smooth and indistinguishable, however. When you see the animation, you know it’s of a time forty years after the other images. It is interruptive.

Belushi does still benefit from having this dynamic original animation, though it might have been interesting to try for a style more contemporary with the time period it’s representing. A lot of the archival material is rather static, consisting of still photos between the clips from Saturday Night Live, John Belushi’s movies, and his TV appearances being interviewed by Gene Shalit. Surprisingly, though, the visuals never come off as random, even if they’re not always explicitly related to what’s being said on the vocal track. Some of it just seems cheeky, as when we hear Chevy Chase and see a photo of John Belushi giving the finger, only for the camera to zoom out and show that Chase is also in the picture receiving the bird directly.

Again, the sound does the most to carry the film. Even at it’s slowest visually, Belushi maintains engagement not just through the audio interviews but also the score by Tree Adams and the licensed music soundtrack. John Belushi’s story is much like that of a rock star, and music was a big part of his life and career, so it makes sense that the soundtrack would be significant and substantial. What’s interesting, though, is how John Belushi went through phases that reflected the tone of his life, from his high school garage rock days through his peak years in the Blues Brothers to his ultimate involvement with punk.

What we’re hearing in Belushi is always the most influential as far as having a sensory experience of the life of John Belushi, but that’s not to dismiss the film as something that could have been solely an audio documentary or podcast. And the oral history may not be as full and detailed in its information as the book by Belushi Pisano and Colby, but the page doesn’t suffice where the mood of the subject or the speakers are concerned. The whole package is preferred because here we get to see John Belushi in action, momentarily brought back to life.

He was an intelligent man and could be quite witty, but in his work, John Belushi was primarily known for his physicality, whether it be the slapstick variety or, as is pointed out with a clip from Animal House plus an acknowledgment that most of his written dialogue was excised, his silent expressiveness. He also, as is shown in the film, did not like to talk about himself or his private life in public forums. So it’s perfect that he has so many people speaking on his behalf and about him in the documentary while he provides the visual material.

It’s like the opposite of an audio-centric archival documentary such as Listen to Me Marlon, which was also, like Belushi, produced by John Battsek and released by Showtime, but is based around audio recordings strictly featuring the spoken word of Marlon Brando. The comparison is a reminder that there are so many ways to tell a life story cinematically and that each life story warrants a distinctive approach given what materials are available and how they can be put to use to best portray or convey.

Belushi could have easily been just another ordinary biographical documentary with testimonials from those who knew him and those who admired him. It could have had less care put into its various levels and elements, lazily feeding nostalgia and fandom with a simple montage of clips both familiar and discovered and a sprinkling of soundbites. But nooo! This is a documentary of utmost precision honoring and respecting and held up by the spirit of everyone involved, from John Belushi himself to the phantom voices to those in the audience.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.