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Nov. 28, 2020

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‘Belushi’ a sympathetic portrait of gifted man

Showtime documentary premiers Sunday

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When somebody dies young, it’s natural to mourn the loss of what that person may have accomplished. When a famous person dies before reaching their artistic maturity, millions of people who never met the celebrity may feel intensely sorry, as if they’ve been robbed of years of potentially interesting work.

In the case of the late comic performer and actor John Belushi, it’s also hard to get past the sad associations: Talented guy, born into a family that had issues, rockets to early fame, then struggles with substance abuse, and dies, at age 33, of what was referred to as “combined drug intoxication,” at the fabled Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood.

It’s all distressingly familiar. Which presents a challenge for “Belushi,” a documentary film about the career and too-short life of Belushi, who found early success on “Saturday Night Live,” the Oregon-filmed movie, “Animal House,” and with the Blues Brothers, a musical act featuring Belushi and his good friend and fellow “SNL” veteran Dan Aykroyd, which was turned into a big-budget, blockbuster movie.

After all these years – Belushi died in 1982 – and endless “SNL” compilation specials, featuring contributions from Belushi and other veterans of the sketch series, what fresh insights can “Belushi” offer?

The documentary, which premieres at 9 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22 on Showtime, doesn’t offer revelations of the sort likely to change anybody’s opinion about Belushi. But the movie is clearly made with affection, and serves as a counter-balance to Bob Woodward’s 1984 biography, “Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi,” which Belushi’s widow, Judith Belushi Pisano, and others close to the late performer, criticized as sensationalistic, shallow and distorted.

Directed by R.J. Cutler (whose other documentaries include “Listen To Me Marlon”), “Belushi” clearly benefits from access to archival materials and video clips, as well as several interviews recorded by author Tanner Colby, who, with Belushi’s widow, Judith, drew on them to put together a 2005 oral history/biography of the “SNL” legend.

In the documentary, we hear many of these interviews, some with people who have since passed away themselves, including Harold Ramis, Carrie Fisher and Penny Marshall.

Early in the film, as we watch footage of Belushi, Aykroyd and the Blues Brothers band playing to a huge, raucous crowd in Los Angeles, Ramis is heard saying that Belushi was on a hit TV show, starring in the top-grossing “Animal House,” and now was onstage before adoring throngs.

“John always had appetites that were completely out of control,” Ramis says. Knowing that, Ramis says, his first thought about Belushi’s spectacular success was, “How great for him.”

“My second thought,” Ramis adds, was, “I don’t think he’ll survive this.”

For comedy lovers, it’s fun to see clips of Belushi making the break from his Wheaton, Ill. home, to go onstage, landing in projects that featured all sorts of talents who went on to help create a new era for comedy. In “National Lampoon’s Lemmings,” “The National Lampoon Radio Hour,” and onstage at Second City in Chicago, Belushi rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ramis, Aykroyd, the late Gilda Radner, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and more.

Some sequences are animated, with Bill Hader, whose own “SNL” days came long after Belushi’s death, providing the voice of Belushi. Friends and relatives – including brother Jim Belushi, who owns a cannabis farm in Southern Oregon – share details of early life in the household.

It doesn’t sound like Belushi’s Albanian immigrant father, and Belushi’s mother, were happy. In a pattern that holds true for all sorts of creative people, the young Belushi turned his energies outward, and into making people laugh. That later resulted in the famous “Olympia Restaurant” “SNL” sketches, in which Belushi and other regulars informed customers that their choices consisted of “cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger,” no matter what diners tried to order.

That sketch, and Belushi’s heavily-accented character, was inspired by the family, Jim Belushi says. The cheeseburger guy, Belushi says, was “my dad,” who, according to the documentary, had wanted his son to take over his Chicago restaurant, instead of going into show business.

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