Belushi: the world's first talking mouths documentary.
John Belushi could milk more laughter with a slight shift of the eyebrow than most comedians can with a pratfall. He transformed slobbery into an art form, and sewed danger into the heart of each gag. You’re familiar with talking heads documentaries, that effortless approach to filmmaking that transforms interview subjects into news anchors? Director R.J. Cutler’s Belushi could be the first talking mouths documentary. Many of the interviews were conducted via telephone by Tanner Colby over the months following Belushi’s death at age 33. The conversations, intended to form an oral history of Belushi’s life, are being heard here for the first time. Among those interviewed are Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis, Lorne Michaels, brother Jim, the widow Belushi, Judith Belushi-Pisano, and dozens more. As Fisher put it, “Judy was John’s co-dependant anchor,” and the lifetime of love they crammed into the time they were together only adds to the heartbreak.
His first paying gig was in summer stock when, at age 17, Belushi signed a professional contract with a local theatre company. The job description entailed acting, painting flats, and mowing the lawn. In an early correspondence with Judy, John expressed a desire to be in the audience for a performance at Chicago’s Second City. Not long after his wish became a reality, Belushi had joined the merry band of improvisors. I first became aware of his enormous presence when he and Chevy Chase passed through Chicago for a one-night-only performance of Lemmings, National Lampoon’s hilarious vamp on Woodstock. (It was on Lemmings that Belushi met the love of his life, cocaine. One had best grasp those armrests the moment Belushi took to the stage as Joe Cocker, lest one be blown away by the high-octane impersonation.) That led to a spot as one of the inaugural cast members of Saturday Night Live, where he spent the first season on the show catching cold from standing in Chevy Chase’s shadow. Chase received much more airtime than Belushi, and it wasn’t until his ego ballooned to monstrous proportions (he quit after one season) that John took center stage.
Belusi never felt comfortable with himself as an actor, choosing instead to go by the handle “disciplined anarchist” or sketch comic. One thing he did take seriously was his devotion to Jake and Elwood Blues. To Belushi, the Blues Brothers were far from a goof. Love the band — I saw them perform live in concert — hate the movie for its over-inflated (133 min!) demolition-derby style of comedy. But one behind-the-scenes story best summed up Belushi’s likeability and appeal to the common man. Dan Aykroyd referred to him as “America’s guest,” a man with a face so recognizable that he could walk off a location shoot, knock on a stranger’s door, and inform the occupant that he was both tired and hungry. In no time, John, would be sprawled out on the couch eating a sandwich he whipped together from fixings found in his host’s refrigerator.
There was a year-and-a-half stretch when Belushi was clean and sober, and it showed in his work. (Credit Smokey Wendell, former Secret Service bodyguard to Richard Nixon, for keeping the riff-raff away.) His performance as a crusading, Mike Royko-ish newsman in Continental Divide is easily his finest hour as an actor. But no sooner did he and Wendell part company than John was back on the shit, and it showed. All the drugs in the world wouldn’t be enough to make Neighbors funny.
What killed John Belushi? The biggest insight into his addictive personality came from Carrie Fisher: “Drugs aren’t the problem, sobriety is the problem… You’re not doing drugs for no reason. Once your management medication is removed, all those feelings that it’s been sitting on come up, and you have no coping skills.” There is no mention of the incidents surrounding his death or where he got the ingredients for the heroin and coke speedball that claimed him. Underneath footage of the coroner’s unit arriving at the Chateau Marmont, we hear John as Joliet Jake, singing Randy Newman’s “Guilty.” The song and the moment have stayed with me for days. ★★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
1 Night in San Diego — A pair of lifelong (albeit hair-triggered) pals, Hannah (Jenna Ushkowitz), famous for a stint on a Jersey Shore-style reality TV show and Brooklyn (Laura Ashley Samuels), a would-be Instagram influencer, make for enjoyable travelling companions in this raunchier variation on Romy and Michelle. Rather than a high school reunion, our pair of recent Los Angeles-transplants rent a car from DUIs (pronounced Dewey’s) and wend their way South, where the plan is to hook up with a friend at Comic-Con. Anyone who’s ever been near the Gaslamp during the annual celebration of everything that’s wrong with cinema knows that once the sun goes down, it’s pretty much wall-to-wall people as far as the eye can see. Oddly, this appears to have been shot on a Monday night in April. (One had to laugh when Brooklyn’s phone suggested the Golden West as THE place to stay.) The movie is only as good as the side trips it takes: Brooklyn turning jealous when Hannah is picked out of the crowd by a fan of her work (Alexandra Daddario) adds depth to their friendship, while a detour to Encinitas dead ends in the expectable. And why were the two shushed for laughing at a show titled Law & Order SVU: The Parody Musical? Still, the stars bounce off each other rather nicely. And in this case, overlooking some of the sillier subplots can only lead to more laughs. 2020 — S.M. ★★
Let Him Go — Three years after James Blackledge’s death, his mother Margaret (Diane Lane) witnesses both her young grandson and former daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter) winding up on the receiving end of a public smackdown from James’ replacement, Donnie Weboy (Will Brittain). A wellness call from Margaret is provocation enough to send Donnie and his brood packing back home to his maniacal mother Blanche (Lesley Manville) and family of doltishly durable brethren. (Weboys wobble but they’re too dumb to fall down.) Certain that the child’s life is in danger, Margaret and her retired lawman husband George (Kevin Costner) pack the family station wagon for a journey to reclaim him. There’s no denying the allure of a neo-western variation on that beloved staple of Hallmark theme: grandparents’ rights. I was on board for the opening half of the ride — there’s tension on the menu when first the Blackledges and the Weboys sit down to break bread. But instead of a battle of wits, psychological horror, or even an incestuous junket along the line of Jacki Weaver and her brood in Animal Kingdom, filmmaker Thomas Bezucha sets his sights on sadism. Manville brings genuine menace, as does Lane’s extended arm and probing grin, but it’s not enough to make one let go of the film’s ugliness and myriad of contrivances. 2020 — S.M. ★
Run — I’m all about films that posit adults so envious of a child’s youth, beauty, and perspicacity that their blistering jealousy turns to seething hate. (See: Children of the Damned, The Brood, Princess Aurora’s folks in Sleeping Beauty, etc.) Diane Sherman (Sarah Paulson) is wheeled to the neonatal intensive care unit, where she will meet Chloe (disabled actress, Kiera Allen), the daughter who will spend her life in a wheelchair. Irony, anyone? How about Diane’s comment at a support group meeting, the one about a mother sacrificing everything for a child only to have them grow up and do everything she sacrificed. Teenage and home-schooled, Chloe soon discovers that mom is swapping out her medication with dog tranquilizers to further immobilize her legs. It’s up to director Aneesh Chaganty to make the impossible believable, something he did without breaking a sweat in Searching. But in trying to incorporate black comedy, mystery, suspense, and mystery, Chaganty finds he can’t keep the balls in the air, and his story slowly submerges in a quagmire of convention. If you’re a Hulu subscriber and this pops up, I suggest you point yourself in the opposite direction and do as the title says. 2020 — S.M. ●