Performer John Belushi
What might have been: performer John Belushi, who died aged 33 in 1982 © Michael Gold/Showtime

Growing up in Chicago, John Belushi looked different from his teenage peers: swarthy and hairy with a tendency to pudge. People assumed he was Italian, but his family came from Albania, a place his friends might have struggled to locate on a map. At high school he poured his energies into sport and music in all-American fashion, while ensuring no one ever got to see the inside of the family home or meet the beloved grandmother who spoke no English. 

RJ Cutler’s documentary sews together a verbal tapestry, featuring unheard recordings of the star, together with commentary from friends and colleagues, some, such as Harold Ramis and Carrie Fisher both, no longer with us. The focus is on talent and lost potential, but the comedic actor’s early death of a drug overdose in 1982 at the age of 33 is the skull on the table, foreshadowing doom. That other tragic clown and fame-casualty, Robin Williams, inescapably comes to mind as the story unfolds, but Williams lasted longer than Belushi and left a more substantial artistic legacy. Belushi’s story is heavy on the “what-might-have-been”, which leaves much scope for fondness and generosity. 

Rising from the nascent improv scene in Chicago, Belushi became a founding member of Saturday Night Live, the enduring American comedy factory. Clips of ancient sketches, while not overwhelmingly hilarious, testify to his gift for physical comedy, quick quips and the lightning flashes of expressivity from the combination of jowls, eyebrows and pouting lips. After stealing the show in the 1978 film Animal House, he became young America’s fat, funny friend, albeit with an edge of danger that meant you could never get too comfortable. 

As his fame grew, so did his arrogance, as even his most affectionate colleagues concede. Belushi’s “macho flexing” didn’t go down well with powerful SNL creator Lorne Michaels either; at one point the star snorted cocaine off his boss’s desk. There were tensions on set with rising comic Chevy Chase (again, it’s hard now to crack up at the line “I’m Chevy Chase, and you’re not”). Belushi’s mean snipes at female cast members and scriptwriters show a darker side. Fellow performer Jane Curtin says: “He didn’t seem to respect the women on the show.” 

There are heartwarming extracts from poems and letters he sent high-school sweetheart and later wife, Judy, yet it’s a slightly anodyne portrait of a woman who can’t just have always been hovering supportively in the background.

Belushi himself had some insight into his demons: “When I dislike myself, I think people are fools to like an asshole like me.” His story, like that of Williams, shows how terribly alone a superstar can feel towards the end. At least his peerless performance as Jake Blues in The Blues Brothers will endure. 

★★★☆☆

On Sky Documentaries from November 27 at 9pm

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