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Exploring the 'Belushi' narrative with filmmaker R.J. Cutler

June 9, 2021
7 min read time

Belushi is a documentary film written, directed and produced by acclaimed filmmaker R.J. Cutler (The War Room, The September Issue). An intimate and stirring portrait of comedy icon John Belushi, the film is based on archival interviews with the cooperation of Belushi’s widow, Judy. In addition to Judy Belushi-Pisano, other family members, friends and notable comedy figures are heard throughout, including Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels, and the late Harold Ramis. Their recounting of Belushi’s life is accompanied by photos, clips and animation sequences by Robert Valley (Æon Flux). 

“The origins of making the film are John's life,” reveals Cutler. "Which as we all know ended tragically when he overdosed at the age of 33. And in the wake of his passing, his family granted the rights to tell his story to Bob Woodward, a famous journalist who came into prominence during the Watergate era while writing about Watergate. There was a great gap between what they thought [Bob Woodward] was doing, which was writing the story of John’s life, and what they thought he ended up doing, which was writing a sensationalistic examination of Belushi’s death and his excesses. And in the wake of that, the family, Judy Belushi, John’s widow, and others, pretty much shut down any access to telling John’s story. For decades, this remained the case.”

“I produced a feature documentary called Listen to Me Marlon,” Cutler continues, “and my producing partner on that film was John Battsek, who’s a dear friend of mine. We had a wonderful experience and at a certain point during the process he said, 'You know, for the last ten years I’ve been trying to get the rights to make the John Belushi documentary. Though I’ve had no success, I’ve developed quite a friendship with Judy Belushi and she knows I’m going to ask her every year if she’s ready to change her mind, and I think this year if we show her Listen to Me Marlon, and if she knows you’d be interested in directing the film, I think the time might be right.' I responded with great enthusiasm. John Belushi was a key figure in my development — kind of a development, in my worldview. As a teenager, I subscribed to National Lampoon and I listened to the Radio Hour and, of course, like so many others of my generation when 1975 came along and Saturday Night Live premiered, our minds were blown and our whole relationship to this box in our living room that was the television set completely changed overnight. And John Belushi was at the center of all of that and meant a great deal to me. And John [Battsek] went off and pitched Judy and sent her Listen to Me Marlon and she came back and said, 'I’m in.'”

“And off we went to Martha’s Vineyard to meet with her. I spent the better part of a week wandering Martha’s Vineyard with Judy, listening to her stories about her life with John. And I got great, rich insights and developed a close friendship with her, and then she gave us access to the archive kept in the basement of her house in Martha’s Vineyard. And it turned out that in that archive were all of these audio tapes: Interviews she had done with people in the wake of Woodward’s book. She did a lot of the interviews and a journalist named Tanner Colby did a lot of the interviews. All of those interviews were sitting in a box in the basement of her house. We also discovered John’s letters to Judy. And really the foundation of the film was laid at that point.”

This meeting with Judy and the archival interviews were the genesis of the project, but from a narrative standpoint, it was Belushi’s love of music that help gave shape to the film.

“We started with the music of John’s life,” Cutler elaborates. “You could have started anywhere and, of course, there’s a chronology to John’s life, but the first thing I asked Judy was, 'What was the music that he listened to from the time she met him until the time he died?' There was a point in the editorial process where the film was kind of organized by song and to some extent, it still is. The musical soundtrack is the soundtrack to John’s life, and that provided a very interesting foundation for us.”

True to this form, the music in the film changes not just with the times, but with the various moods of Belushi’s tragically short life. One of the most pronounced tonal shifts in the film is when the blues and soul music of the triumphant second act makes an abrupt switch-over to nihilistic punk rock in the third act.

“That’s all conceptional,” says Cutler, “but it’s conceptionally inspired by John’s actual life and his tastes and how his tastes changed. There was a point where — at his greatest moment of joy, the peak of his career and his life — he went on this journey into blues music. And then as he was losing control — as his addiction was getting the better of him, as he was confronting fame and the entertainment industry in a way that was frustrating and disappointing to him — his tastes shifted to punk music and it became an outlet for his rage. So it’s both conceptional on my part, but inspired entirely by his life.”

Over the years, documentaries have become increasingly cinematic and many, like Belushi, follow the same dramatic three-act structure as a narrative feature.

“My first film was The War Room and that film is as three-act structure as you’ll ever see,” explains Cutler. “There’s a beginning, middle, and end. There are all the twists and turns that every screenwriting guide would suggest. There’s the rising action. There’s the conflict. There’s the fall at the end of the second act. There’s the recovery leading into the third [act]. There’s all that stuff. It’s just good storytelling.”

Many screenwriters might wonder if there is a written outline or some kind of document that acts as a blueprint or road map for a documentary feature. 

“It depends on the project and it depends on the process,” says Cutler, “and the joy of my work is that every project represents its own riddle. I don’t do the same thing for every project. We’re talking about Belushi, but this year I also made a film called Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry. Belushi is principally archival — driven by audio interviews — with animation. Billie Eilish is principally cinéma vérité. Now at the beginning of the Billie Eilish process, I wrote a ten-page document of what I suspected the themes and the narratives might be. These are the things I was curious about. But that document, which I revised throughout the process, became the kind of guiding written document about what this film was — what its themes were, who these people were, who the principal characters were, how they were evolving, how they were changing, what the narrative through-line was — and that was a living document for me. The movie itself is hundreds of hours of raw footage, but that document really guided us. In the case of Belushi, we started with a list of songs, and that list of songs evolved into a list of scenes, and into a list of sequences, and into a list of narratives. Often it becomes a document that lives and breathes. We just announced that I’m starting a film about Martha Stewart and there’s already a twenty-page, living document that is what I suspect the narrative might be. We are always open. It’s not what I want it to be. It’s not what I will make it at all costs. It’s what I’m curious about really, which is, of course, the difference in the approach to a documentary film and a scripted film.” 

Along with the various people in Belushi’s life, the city of Chicago and its adjacent suburbs are characters in the film. I asked Cutler what he thought it was about that location that inspired Belushi and defined his unique stamp on comedy.

“If you asked Judy, as others have, she would speak to the common man nature of who John was — the immigrant roots that were simultaneously very American in their essence, but also, in a way, the outsider. Second, Chicago is known as “the second city” — not the first city — there’s an implication of being outside the mainstream as the second city, but still being mighty and being a little bit like the Cubs, the underdog, always the underdog, and that’s a unique perspective. John was an outsider. As you see in the film, he lived in this Waspy community that was like the heartland of America where football on Friday night was the most important thing, and he was a football star, but he was Albanian! He was a complete outsider. English wasn't spoken in his house. He was ashamed of his home. He didn’t mind that people thought he was Italian because his skin was a little darker. He didn’t feel part of the mainstream, so he could be outside it, commenting on it, making comedy out of it, and having an outsider’s perspective.”

From The War Room to Belushi to Billie Eilish, Cutler appears to be drawn to larger-than-life personalities that are the center of an exciting and high-stakes world. 

“I’m always driven by curiosity, and I think that the people about whom I am the most curious are people who care a tremendous amount about what they’re doing and are doing it as well as they possibly can under high-stakes circumstances. That really compels me. I find those people, especially when they’re at a crossroads in their lives, make for great storytelling and there are great human themes to explore. I’m drawn to people who share these qualities, and I’m blessed in being able to tell their stories.”

Belushi is currently available to watch on Showtime.


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