In his short 6 years on the countrywide phase, no comedian was more well known than John Belushi. At the peak of his fame, in the late 1970s, he eclipsed even Steve Martin and Robin Williams by starring in the top-rated new phenomenon, “Saturday Evening Live” and what was then the highest grossing film comedy ever, “Animal Household,” while his band, the Blues Brothers, had the country’s No. 1 album, “Briefcase Comprehensive of Blues.”

And nonetheless, the wild successes of his daily life have nonetheless been partly overshadowed by his shockingly abrupt demise, of a drug overdose at the age of 33 in 1982. Two many years later, Bob Woodward took a rare foray exterior politics to release a book about Belushi, “Wired,” an oddly medical, coldly lurid best seller that focused on the star’s debauched remaining days. It reads like a sequence of “Behind the Music” episodes transcribed by an accountant. That controversial ebook still looms in excess of Belushi’s legacy, and while there have been quite a few tries to fill out his tale, which includes a memoir by his widow that fixates on Woodward, a new film by the documentary veteran R.J. Cutler (“The September Issue”) is the first portrait that vividly humanizes Belushi while remaining cleareyed.

The important to the movie, “Belushi” (debuting Sunday on Showtime), is its principal sources. In documentaries, they can be the distinction involving textbook historical past and gripping drama. Cutler lavishes interest on private images, childhood movies, previous interviews, but most of all, Belushi’s letters, presenting a determine a great deal much more introspective and sensitive than the frat-boy icon Bluto from “Animal Home,” his most renowned character. Cutler doesn’t appear again so much as test to inform Belushi’s story in a present tense. This has disadvantages, together with a missing vital voice to contextualize and reveal the star’s aesthetic. But amid a glut of fawning comedy documentaries, Cutler’s movie stands out as well balanced, illuminating and compulsively watchable.

On tv, Belushi appeared to be a blue collar Everyman who “represented messy bedrooms all around The united states,” as Steven Spielberg, who cast him in “1941,” the moment described him. But Belushi was also driven and bold, the sort of dude who kept his superior critiques in his pocket, inform to artistic believability. One yr just after the 1975 premiere of “S.N.L.,” he fearful that the demonstrate leaned as well a lot on recurring people (like his samurai and bee appearances) and catchphrases and that it made a star system — all prevalent criticisms for the upcoming 4 decades, albeit Belushi was the uncommon star willing to go general public during his time there.

Belushi was a television star who mentioned he disliked television. Lorne Michaels at first did not want to employ the service of him, and 1 will get the sense that right after Belushi’s stint, the equilibrium of electric power amongst producer and star of “Saturday Night time Live” would never be the very same again. There’s an unsettling scene in the documentary when Belushi’s overall health experienced deteriorated so much that a health practitioner tells Michaels that if the comic performs on the present that 7 days, his chances for survival would be 50-50. “I could dwell with those people odds,” Michaels claims dryly.

This story has appeared prior to, in a 2005 oral background about Belushi, which is primarily based on taped interviews that are also used in the movie. In that e book, Al Franken details out that when Michaels would afterwards pressure Chris Farley to go to rehab, he adopted a much less compassionate approach with Belushi, receiving him healthcare awareness just to “make certain he could operate for the display.” A person imagines that Michaels’s encounter with Belushi also informs his handling of the psychological well being issues of Pete Davidson today.

But reading about this doesn’t have the same influence as listening to the blasé voice of Michaels. That provides a interesting window into the ruthlessness — even in the course of a much more reckless, seat-of-your-trousers era — that helped him make the most resilient juggernaut in comedy.

“Belushi” dangers descending into mythmaking, presenting the star as a Dylan-like determine, a rebel from the middle of the region who writes poetry and balks at fame. Cutler features Belushi’s response when a journalist asks him what his father did: strike guy. (He essentially ran a restaurant.) But it doesn’t shy absent from his sexism, his inconsistency or his self-harmful impulses. Cutler tells a harrowing story of the impact of Belushi’s drug use in a straightforward litany of pictures, exhibiting a rakish determine transforming into a bloated, vacant-eyed 1. There is some astonishingly melancholy times, like an job interview with Gene Shalit in which Belushi seems to be totally defeated.

The explanation of his decrease is a skillfully structured narrative of increasing isolation, that features the dying of his grandmother adopted by the decline of a trusted bodyguard and most wrenchingly, the estrangement from his wife, who would seem to anticipate his demise. (“I’m afraid he’ll die,” she writes in just one letter.) He also writes about his personal self-destruction in bracingly blunt phrases, coming off as a doomed tragic hero. While the Belushi of “Wired” appears remote, a determine being noticed from a distance, these non-public letters give a picture of his internal life that brings us closer to him. It is the difference amongst a quick comic sketch and a probing psychological drama.

This increase-and-fall arc can be so gripping that you can just about excuse how little the documentary looks intrigued in Belushi as a comic. But decades just after his demise, lots of nowadays really do not know his work, and this movie does not present a sustained situation for what manufactured him peculiarly amusing. It is a missed prospect due to the fact you could effortlessly discover echoes of his everyday living in his comedy. He appeared in the initially sketch in the record of “S.N.L.,” abruptly falling on the ground and dying, and in the third episode, his unbelievable impression of Joe Cocker ended in convulsions. A single of his breakthroughs, an visual appeal on Weekend Update, also finished with a coronary heart attack.

Belushi, who specialized in impressions of other charismatic cultural icons like Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando and William Shatner, attacked his roles with a visceral, explosive aggression. (The funniest moment in “The Blues Brothers” is when he badgers, in a guttural voice, a mother or father at a fancy restaurant: “How a lot for the very little female?”) But what made him far more than just a wild and crazy man was a wide tender, romantic streak, particular in less verbal scenes.

His physicality, each athletic and swish, was his authentic reward. My preferred of his sketches is a wordless interlude with Gilda Radner at a laundromat where they meet up with, see there is just just one machine readily available and make your mind up to do their garments together. It is a simple, sweet romance, unimaginable in today’s “S.N.L.,” carried by pantomime that is not just elegant but thoughtful. With the most expressive eyebrows in comedy, Belushi executed the delivery of an notion as very well as any person.

It’s tempting to question what might have been. If Belushi experienced lived, would he have designed extra hits and created as a extraordinary actor like Invoice Murray (Dan Aykroyd started composing “Ghostbusters” with Belushi in intellect) or fade away with a deteriorating reputation like Chevy Chase?

Belushi’s obscure last motion pictures, “Continental Divide” and “Neighbors,” provide evidence for possibly route. They exhibit him striving to stretch and get the job done against his status, participating in a regular romantic lead and a repressed square. Each videos were being small failures, artistically and commercially, but bold, interesting types. Generally, they deliver to mind what Eddie Murphy, the next supernova “S.N.L.” star, told Playboy when questioned what he thought upon listening to Belushi died: “What a waste.”