John Belushi’s entrances onstage raise a grin with the promise of unruly energy. But his early exit from life after a drug overdose in 1982 left a legend that tends to seal his tomb. So it’s touching to learn something new from “Belushi,” R.J. Cutler’s warmly told documentary: the man who once impersonated a zit also wrote soul-bearing (and sometimes adorable) love letters.
Judith Belushi Pisano (formerly Jacklin) was the comic’s lifelong sweetheart, and Cutler’s biography hits home hardest as a kind of love story. But Belushi’s career trajectory is faithfully charted — from Second City to “The National Lampoon Radio Hour” to “Saturday Night Live” to “Animal House” and the Blues Brothers. The gang’s all here, in audio interviews: close pal Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, a peevish Lorne Michaels, Jane Curtin, brother Jim, Carrie Fisher, and more, musing candidly on Belushi’s magnetism and many drives. (Some excerpts come from Judy’s 2005 book, “Belushi: A Biography.”)
Belushi’s incredible Joe Cocker routine underlines his origins in a counterculture that soon served the purposes of mass entertainment. Cutler also includes illuminating stories of Belushi’s background. The Illinois native was the son of an Albanian restaurant owner, and his mother once ran away to act in a play. Who knew the classic cheeseburger sketch had a poignant echo with his father’s workplace?
Belushi’s confident physicality in the moment was paired with an underappreciated cleverness (which might not give all generations the same rebellious kick). But “Belushi” taps the sweetness in a cultural fixture with an irreplaceably wild sense of fun.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes. Watch on Showtime.