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RJ Cutler Honors John Belushi In His New Documentary

NPR's Scott Simon talks to filmmaker RJ Cutler about his new documentary called Belushi, on the life of comedian John Belushi.

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Transcript:

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In today's all-chopped-into-hundreds-of-channels-and-streams media landscape, it's hard to imagine how big John Belushi was by the time he was just 30. He was Bluto in the top-grossing - and, boy, do I mean grossing - movie, "Animal House." He was on the top-rated TV show, "Saturday Night Live." He was even a top recording artist as one of The Blues Brothers with his close friend Dan Akroyd.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYBODY NEEDS SOMEBODY TO LOVE")

JOHN BELUSHI: (As Joliet Jake) Everybody needs somebody. Everybody needs somebody to love.

SIMON: But as Harold Ramis, his friend and fellow Second City player, says in R.J. Cutler's new documentary, "Belushi," on Showtime...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BELUSHI")

HAROLD RAMIS: My first thought was, how great for him. My second thought was, knowing his appetites, I don't think he'll survive this.

SIMON: John Belushi was 33 when he died of a cocaine-heroin speedball at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. "Belushi" includes excerpts from previously unheard audio archives from Harold Ramis, Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Fisher, Jane Curtin, Judy Belushi and more. R.J. Cutler joins us from Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us, R.J.

RJ CUTLER: Thanks so much for having me.

SIMON: All these years later, what was the gift that made John Belushi so big?

CUTLER: He had, of course, the visionary's passion. He was a man who from a kid, really - who from the youngest age, they say he would walk around the neighborhood knocking on neighbors' doors. And if you opened up, you got a performance of 4-year-old John Belushi in your living room. And if you invited John to play rehearsal, he'd show up, and he'd bring nine other people with him. And you'd have to find parts for them as well. And they were his gang. And he was a man who gathered others, and he was a man who loved to perform.

SIMON: Yeah. And in that company of Second City players, he really kind of broke through the frame, didn't he?

CUTLER: He sure did. At Second City, he was - Ramis, in our film, describes him in terms where you just you - he couldn't be contained. He couldn't be contained on stage. He couldn't be contained in terms of his ambition. He couldn't be contained in terms of his talent. He couldn't be contained in terms of his appetites. But it was really as a - as the writer and director of "National Lampoon's Radio Hour" (ph) that he assembled all of the legends in one place for the first time. So many people who would end up becoming Not Ready for Prime Time Players and forming the core group of that generation first gathered with John at the "Radio Hour," "National Lampoon's Radio Hour."

SIMON: How did you learn about this archive of recordings?

CUTLER: Well, when Judy Belushi first agreed to let me make the film, she invited me and our producers up to Martha's Vineyard to spend some time there to get to know her. She and I would take long walks. And she shared with me her life story with John, which was a wonderful foundation for the film. And she also invited us to look through the archive in her basement, where she had kept in many boxes all of John's material. The letters he wrote to her throughout his - from the moment they met - throughout his life were in there. And also there were boxes of audiotapes. And when I asked her what the tapes were, she explained that in the wake of John's death, she and Tanner Colby, a journalist friend of hers, had decided to conduct an oral history of John's life. And these were the tapes that comprised the oral history. And nobody had ever really listened to them.

SIMON: And his letters - I made several notes. One of the most heartrending sections - John Belushi wrote, I guess in a letter to Judy, I dislike myself, and I don't trust people who like me.

CUTLER: Yeah. It's amazing the self-doubt a man as deeply beloved as John Belushi could have had. We know that insecurity can drive artists to great heights. And certainly this was the case with John. And he - while he was a deeply private man who rarely gave an interview out of character, in his letters, he revealed himself fully.

SIMON: Even among a community of artists and a time in which drugs were widely used, people who knew and loved John Belushi were worried about the volume and the way in which he used them.

CUTLER: Well, John was a man of voracious appetite. So in a time when recreational drug use and abuse was relatively commonplace, John went to greater excess because John went to greater excess in all things. And here was a man as well who suffered from addiction issues, clearly. He could not stop himself. And the life burned brightly and burned too briefly. But, man, did it bring a lot.

And by the way, it had an impact that we feel to this day. It was John Belushi who first gathered those who became the Not Ready for Prime Time Players when "Saturday Night Live" launched. And as much as Lorne Michaels is due all the credit for the creation of that show and this - and its - sustaining it for all these decades, it was John who first brought them together. It was John who first directed that group. It was John who was really their leader and who, after biding his time through Season 1, who emerged as the leader and as the real defining visionary of the group.

SIMON: R.J. Cutler, who has directed "Belushi," now on Showtime. R.J., thanks so much for being with us.

CUTLER: Thanks to you, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.