When I was in high school, you couldn’t find a bigger John Belushi fan than me. He was the star of my favorite television program, Saturday Night Live, and I soon found out he had been a big part of Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy club and The National Lampoon Radio Hour. I loved his impressions. They were all so weird and specific and obscure: Toshiro Mifune... Marlon Brando... Joe Cocker? Soon, he would star in Animal House and sing on the Number One album of the summer of 1979, Briefcase Full of Blues.
By the age of 33, he would be gone, a victim of drug addiction.
The best things Belushi has to offer are never-before-seen excerpts from his diary and letters to his wife Judy. They’re read by Bill Hader, who doesn’t exactly do a Belushi impression, but captures the spirit of the big, conflicted guy. These fragments, shown onscreen in Belushi’s own handwriting, offer a glimpse of a man out of control, a man full of talent and insecurity, a sad clown, a man with a hole inside himself so big that nothing could fill it... not success, not money, not adoration, not love.
Unfortunately, since Belushi died, many of his contemporaries have also passed away: Gilda Radner, Harold Ramis, Carrie Fisher, Penny Marshall, Tom Davis, Michael O’Donoghue, Doug Kenney, Matty Simmons, Chris Miller, and half of the original Blues Brothers band. In 2005, Belushi’s widow Judy collaborated on a biography of her late husband with Tanner Colby. It’s a wonderful, big coffee-table book (also titled Belushi) featuring lots of interviews with those who knew him. R.J. Cutler, the director of the new Showtime documentary, uses Colby’s copious interview audio tapes to take the place of talking head interviews. This is great because we hear these famous voices giving their unique takes on Belushi, but it is bad in that we never get to see the faces behind those voices. Colby only made the tapes to be transcribed, so the audio quality is pretty rough, and the opinions expressed are all fifteen years old.
Many years ago, I wrote about meeting John Belushi in the summer of 1980. Here’s a bit of that column:
“My friend Terry and I managed to snag tickets to the Blues Brothers Chicago premiere from a local radio station. The promotional tickets urged us to ‘dress like the Blues Brothers,’ and we did. We were later featured in the local paper, posing with 20 other sets of Blues Brothers -- a Blues Army, if you will.
Hanging around the lobby at the end of the screening, Terry and I noticed a bearded figure in the corner. It was Blues Brothers director John Landis. We recognized him because we were such fans of his earlier film Animal House, but no one else in the lobby seemed to know who he was. We struck up a conversation, and Landis was personable and talked to us for a long time. He found it curious that we had seen Animal House so many damn times and delighted in the trivia we brought to his attention. By and by, another man joined our group, Bernie Brillstein, who was John Belushi's manager. The four of us talked and talked. Brillstein suddenly asked, ‘Would you two guys like to meet John and Danny? They're presenting the City of Chicago with a check tomorrow. If you guys come to City Hall, I'll make sure you meet them.’”
I got to meet Belushi that day, but I’m not sure he met me. I remember Dan Ackroyd getting out of his limo in front of City Hall and talking to us; he was friendly and full of good humor. Later that morning when I finally met John and asked for his autograph, he didn’t seem to be all there. It was as if I were talking to the Wizard of Oz, and the real John Belushi was far away—a “man behind the curtain” I was cautioned to pay no attention to. It was a bizarre encounter, to say the least, and that’s why I remember it so well all these years later. Belushi signed my program in ball-point pen and, with each passing year, the ink fades a little more. Soon there will be nothing left of his autograph but the memory of it.