The good news about “Belushi,” which had its world premiere as the Opening Night selection of the Chicago International Film Festival and which will appear on Showtime next month, is that it’s at least a step up from those earlier efforts—it keeps the wallowing to moderate levels and there is not a single guardian angel on display. However, it too seems to be curiously uninterested in what it was that made Belushi tick and what drove him to the darkest of depths when he literally seemed to have it all. Instead, writer/director R.J. Cutler (whose previous documentary subjects have included Oliver North, Dick Cheney and the creation of the annual mammoth fall-fashion issue of Vogue) is content to present a slickly produced compilation of photos, film clips and behind-the-scenes footage without bringing any new insight to the proceedings.
Tying all of this material together are recordings of interviews with Belushi’s family, friends, and colleagues which were used to put together “Belushi,” a 2005 oral biography by his widow, Judith Belushi Pisano, and Tanner Colby that was meant to serve as a literary corrective to “Wired.” Because these recordings were made so long ago, several of those participants, including Harold Ramis, Penny Marshall and Carrie Fisher (whose keen observations about Belushi are easily the most penetrating ones heard), have since passed on themselves, which inevitably leads to a bit of an additional pall whenever we hear them. The film also uses animation (with Bill Hader doing Belushi’s voice) to fill in key moments of Belushi’s life for which there was no archival representation—his first encounter with Judith, his first exposure to Second City, whose stage he would soon be dominating on a nightly basis, and, perhaps inevitably, his early encounters with cocaine.
The film hits upon the expected touchstones—his breakthrough on “Saturday Night Live,” the mammoth success of “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” his increased struggles with drugs and an industry that only saw him as the broad slob comedian and that sad day when the seemingly indestructible force of nature finally slipped away all alone at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles. However, the movie prefers to go over ground that has been more than adequately covered in the past—at this point, there are probably many who could cite the histories of the early days of “SNL” and the making of “Animal House” chapter and verse—while barely touching on others. His attempts to stretch himself as a performer, for example, are barely touched on—his charming and restrained work in the sweet romantic comedy “Continental Divide” gets only a cursory mention even as the film gives us yet another chance to watch the old “SNL” parody commercial for chocolate donuts.