‘Belushi’ Director R.J. Cutler on ‘SNL’ Legend’s Rise, Tragic Death and Anarchic Spirit

R.J. Cutler’s “Belushi” charts the rise and fall of “Animal House” star John Belushi without dwelling on the particulars of his tragic death of a drug overdose at 33.

“Drugs and his overdose have become the thing that many people focus on in John’s story, but that’s not what I was interested in,” said Cutler. “I wasn’t interested in his death. I was interested in his life.”

Instead, the documentary is a celebration of Belushi’s anarchic spirit — the way he could commander an “SNL” skit with the cock of an eyebrow and send it spinning off in fresh and revolutionary directions. Chevy Chase may have been the late night show’s first breakout star, but it was Belushi who provided the sketch comedy program with its rebel yell.

Cutler relies heavily on footage of Belushi’s “SNL” tenure and work in films like “The Blues Brothers” to chronicle his iconoclastic performance style. He also uses audio interviews with Belushi’s friends, colleagues and admirers that were conducted by Tanner Colby for “Belushi: A Biography,” his 2012 oral history of the actor. It’s a group of intimates that includes Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Carrie Fisher, Lorne Michaels, Jim Belushi and Penny Marshall. “Belushi” premiered on Oct. 14 at the Chicago International Film Festival and will debut on Showtime on November 22.

Why did you want to make this film?

He had a huge impact on me as a kid. I was a teenager in 1975 when “Saturday Night Live” launched and my mind was blown by the show. Belushi was the rebel in the center of it, who many of us connected with not just for his comedy, but for his anarchic performance spirit.

Belushi didn’t just seem like a comic star, he comes across in your film more like a rock star. How do you explain that?

Exactly. With rock stars, we love their music, we love their energy, we love their performances, but we connect with them. It was the same way with John. There was something ineffable in his comedy. He was a raw, exposed live-wire. You not only delighted in his comedy and his rebelliousness, but you were curious about who he was as a person. Lorne Michaels says you could see into his soul. I think that’s true.

That kind of stardom where people have such an intense connection to you must be much more exhausting than a more typical form of celebrity.

It certainly weighed heavily on John, who was such a private man. I think it’s Penny Marshall in the film who says he seemed to love it at first, but then he was consumed by it. That’s not something anybody wants, to be devoured by your connection to your public.

When Belushi died, his most recent film, “Neighbors,” had been a critical dud and a box office disappointment. Do you get a sense his career was starting to decline?

No, I don’t get that sense at all. How could anybody match the success that he had right off the bat? For that to be the yardstick doesn’t feel realistic. He was an artist who was forever reinventing himself. He was hellbent on taking risks and trying new things. He wanted to keep stretching as a performer and an artist. There weren’t people around him who could help him or systems in place to confront addiction. He needed someone to say, “Take six months off. Chill. It’s all going to be here when you come back.”

Bob Woodward’s biography of Belushi, “Wired,” was criticized for dwelling too much on his drug abuse. Were you worried about over-emphasizing Belushi’s drug addiction?

Drugs were a part of his life and you see that in the film. You see the degree to which it challenged and damaged his relationships. It overcame him and ultimately led to his tragic and way too-early death. Drugs and his overdose have become the thing that many people focus on in John’s story, but that’s not what I was interested in. I wasn’t interested in his death. I was interested in his life.

Your film definitely acknowledges his overdoes, but it doesn’t dwell on his last few hours at the Chateau Marmont. Was that a conscious decision?

What more is there to say? He died. It’s going to happen to all of us. That’s the period at the end of the sentence. This is a movie about the sentence — and what a sentence it was.

Why do people revere those early seasons of “SNL”?

They felt dangerous. You felt, especially when watching John, like anything could happen. And you have to remember the moment, which is so resonant with our own. The 1970s were a period when everyone is questioning what can be trusted in their authority figures. What can be trusted in the principal medium that’s delivering you news and information and facts and guidance and wisdom? Important questions were being asked about leadership and corporate responsibility and the meaning of America.

What’s changed in presidential politics since you made “The War Room,” and what’s stayed the same?

It was 1992, so it was 28 years ago and everything has changed but so much has remained the same. I made a film in 1994 called “A Perfect Candidate” about Oliver North’s senate race, and it’s the same campaign. It’s the same tricks and scare tactics deployed by the right. North went on about the crime in the streets and talking about Democrats taking guns. He was doing the same dog-whistling as the Republicans are doing today. It was the same madness riling up people. Of course, the means of communication are different. The Clinton campaign in 1992 was known for its rapid response. What was rapid response? Something would happen on a Tuesday and they would send out a fax to people by the next morning. If you got out a response in 12 hours it was rapid. Now we don’t measure in time, we measure in tweets.

Nothing we saw in that time compares to what’s going on now. Now, democracy is under siege. Now, we have a rising fascist rightwing that we weren’t dealing with then. The Union is at stake.

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