With the news breaking this month that the yet untitled, set back ridden, Belushi biopic has cast their main character I thought it prudent to look back at the real John Belushi's life and the 1989 biopic made about him. The blacklisted and damned Wired.
On January 24th 1979 John Belushi had the Number 1 film in the U.S. with the unbridled success of National Lampoon’s Animal House, the number one charted U.S. album with The Blues Brothers "Briefcase Full Of Blues", and was a full-fledged cast member of the groundbreaking skit television series Saturday Night Live, and it was also his thirtieth birthday (Belushi-Pisano). However, in only two short years John Belushi would be found dead in his hotel suite. A bright comedic light burnt out in his prime unable to outrun the laughter he so loved to create. Many over the years have asked, why? With little more than a short list of films and television appearances on his resume Belushi was able to captivate a nation in a way few have been able to do since. Furthermore many have asked why even with all that acceptance, fame, and such a bright future ahead of him he would fall into the addictions that eventually took his life. One of my comedic idols as a child I looked at John Belushi and hoped to one day see myself gracing the halls of his old haunts working for the shear enjoyment of making others laugh however the tragedy of his life overshadows much of his work.
Dubbed America’s Favorite Guest for his ability to make or convince anyone to take him in; Belushi would in a short time span, rise to his meteoric position only to be shot down by the very persona he created for himself. In 1984 only two years after his death Bob Woodward, the famous journalist and writer who is best known for his book and its adaption of the same name “All The Presidents Men” was tasked by Belushi’s widow Judy to pen a posthumous biography believing his investigative journalism background would help shed light on what happened to her husband. Woodward would find this to be the worst decision of his life. When Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi was published it not only set off a firestorm of criticism from Belushi’s friends and family but sparked the ignition for the wheels of it’s inevitable film adaption to be made. This is an analysis of said adaption that will attempt to shed light on the missteps and misinterpretations that led to the worst biography to ever grace the shelves of your local video rental store; 1989’s blacklisted and career stalling Wired.
When approached to write the book Woodward was placed in a position of great luck as he had literally everyone who ever knew John at his disposal being a project almost completely backed by Judy, his brother James (Jim) Belushi, and his best friend and comedic partner Dan Aykroyd however his finished product was such a distortion of John’s life that the purpose his family and friends had in seeking out his help on the project was completely turned around. The 532 paged book moved fluidly describing Johns last few days holed up in a bungalow suite at the Chateau Marmont, the years of on and off addiction cocaine, exploding temper, and drug fueled binges disappearing for weeks while doing little to highlight the man behind the broken party animal persona. Woodward attempted to paint a picture of an uncontrollable drug machine demonizing him as a product of an out of control Hollywood system that only wanted to profit from John rather than care for him. In short by the end of the book Woodward attempts to ask the reader to lay blame on someone for Belushi’s death, be it Belushi himself or the people around him that only wanted the funny out of him and onto the screen for their benefit. Serving up Johns life as a cautionary tale to all those who try to make it big in Hollywood. Woodward and others in later years would suggest the biggest source of frustration in John’s Final months was the demand of his work.
John had been trying to push along his pet project Nobel Rot about a party animal son of a big time wine vineyard owner who must save the family business by successfully fermenting the alcohol of grapes with a special form of rot. This would be John’s first feature film he had written having demanded to take over and adapting what the previous writer had done. However the only way anyone would allow him to do the film his way was if he agreed to sign on for an adaption of the book “The Joys of Sex” into a comedic tail following Belushi's character from birth to death all portrayed by Belushi. To an audience today this might seem like an epic and intriguing film however for John in 1982 it was a demeaning effort to bleed him of his dignity while he simulated sexual acts and the biggest issue for him, having to wear a diaper for a few scenes. Belushi is quoted by Woodward as having told his wife “You can’t believe what they want me to do now, they want me to do the Joy of Sex, you won’t believe the script. They want me to wear a diaper.” Woodward goes further to state that John intended to call his and Judy’s friend Tino to rewrite the script in an attempt to make it less embarrassing. John would instead continue his pursuit of Nobel Rot’s completion that would ultimately lead to his death.
Not only does the book depict in graphic detail the conversations and stories of John’s life good or bad but it also sheds light on his final hours, good or bad, and the people he shared them with. John arrived at the chateau marmont to continue work on the script for Nobel Rot with a few friends and a writing partner. During his final night John was visited by friend and fellow actor Robert De Niro who is heralded as one of the best method actors of his generation. De Niro would only stay a short time but in that time he would feel the guilt of his friendship with John for as Woodward points out it was De Niro who when asked about method acting by John replied if he was going to play, say, a heroin addict he should try heroin. Woodward points out Judy’s explanation of her late husband’s view of the drug and his fear of needles as “an almost romantic notion about [it] –the great forbidden, the drug of last resort” (Woodward 396). Another celebrity friend to visit John on that final night was Robin Williams, who would later testify at the trial of the woman who gave John the fatal speedball shot. As stated in his book Woodward reports Williams as having said “Though [he] wasn’t very close to john personally, he felt he had never before been so near death, and that it had scared him – not just the drugs but the fast-lane lifestyle” ( Woodward 482).
Woodward takes the multiple interviews over the span of 1982-1984 and paints a picture of Belushi so unflattering that John’s many colleagues, friends, and family successfully held back the progress of its eventual film adaption. According to accounts from John’s widow Judy and many others Woodward had already been trying to get a film adaption made when the book landed on the shelves in 1984. It was through the sheer power of the people who were close to John that slowed the progress of the film down to a virtual halt and basically blacklisted anyone who worked on it for years. Finally in 1989 the film was made bringing with it its own slurry of negative criticism for its depiction of America’s Guest. Where the book reads like a biography leading into a 60 min’s special on Hollywood corruption and substance abuse in Belushi’s final moments the film takes all the negative aspects of the book and ramps them up to eleven then drops a nuke on the thing just to use the location as a landfill for the [insert vulgar statement here] pumped out of the Hollywood machine. 1989’s Wired not only unfaithfully adapts a greatly skewed book adaption of John Belushi’s life and final months but also adapts the story of how that terrible book was created. While many of the issues with the film are due to their blatant use of creative liberty because of the lack of support from anyone owning rights to John’s estate this meant that no substantial archival footage or recreations of any of John’s projects could be depicted. These copyright issues lead to not only a corruption of the book source material but also the corruption of Belushi’s source life material. Characters are added and taken away, even merged together for whole new ones. Meanwhile please keep in mind this is supposed to be an adaption of a man’s life and final moments. The film builds off of the life the book took on in its own right. All the public criticisms of Woodward for his depiction of John and the double crossed feeling John’s family and friends felt by Woodward’s depiction are hurled up onto the screen stylistically in fictitious scenes so outrageous that it is on the verge of vulgar.
Adaptions can go either way when it comes to faithfulness to the source material. Films like Romeo + Juliet alter well known stories for stylistic adaptions on screen. Wired is no different in its attempt to entertain with the story. The film opens with Belushi already having taken the fatal overdose and is body is lying in a morgue at the coroner’s office. Here John awakes shocked and frightened to the booming sound of lightning; he sits up and declares “Oh shit I’m in trouble” before hopping off the table and performing a few Bluto like jukes to the door. He is hit by the closing swinging door to see the words coroner on it and upon seeing this screams and runs out of the building. As you can see even the first three minutes of the film are already veering away from its source material. John is picked up by a cabbie named Angel who turns out to be his guardian angel who also departed this earth of a heroin overdose and more ironically the actor playing him, Ray Sharkey, also was in the early stages of the aids virus from heroin use at the time of filming though in heavy denial.
Angel: Hey, I seen your movies, man.
John Belushi: [excited] Oh yea? Which one?
Angel: The one where you played a coke addict. You's a funny guy.
John Belushi: Oh, thanks. Thanks a lot.
Angel: But, you died in the end... all fucked up.
John Belushi: Hey, wait a minute... who are you?
Angel: My friends call me Angel.
This cabby who looks like the love child of Ringo Starr and Jeremy Piven takes John on a Christmas carol type journey across the country showing him different stages and his life and career while interspersed with Woodward trying to figure out what happened interview multiple people and the like. The cab driving Angel is a move ripped directly from the film Sid and Nancy about the volatile punk rocker who killed his girlfriend before killing himself soon after.
Belushi is played by the now well-known Michael Chiklis however at the time he was an unknown 24 year old still in film school. According to Chiklis he was called back over 57 times for auditions before the movie was actually made beating out over 200 other actors for the job. Chiklis turns in a great performance given the material he has to work with. His impersonation of Belushi and his characters are generally spot on and seeing him as Jake Blues multiple times in the film really drives home the physical and vocal similarities between the two men. Even the Gary Grooms who, playing Dan Aykroyd, does a good job of sounding like Aykroyd though he looks more like Norm McDonald or Chris Farley’s brother. The Woodward character is played flawlessly as is the Cathie Smith character who injects john with the fatal shot. In fact if it weren’t for the vast fictional deviations this film would have actually been a decent attempt at a bio pic for Belushi. The tag lines for it says it all when summing up the film view of John “Every night was Saturday night for John Belushi” and “The film Hollywood didn’t want made” however the deviations from the source material are just too great to overlook.
Not only is the addition of Angel a bit odd but his character hinges on evil at times. By the end of the film there is a question of whether or not John was going to actually go to hell as he plays a game of pinball in a red tinted room in an attempt to win his life back, a move seen and heard of when dealing with the Devil in multiple texts and films. In addition to the inclusion of Angel Woodward is also portrayed in the film. His journey to find out what happened to Belushi is turned into a personal tail in an attempt to make Woodward look like a sympathetic hero who only wanted to help understand John. We first see Woodward as he enters his office and speaks to his boss about writing a book about Belushi. In this scene it is pointed out that he and john lived and went to the same school together though a few years apart in Wheaten Illinois. Then his Boss lists off a few other famous Wheaton’s before exclaiming “Christ…” and going on along the lines of what a pool of tragic talent had come out of that town. Woodward is seen throughout the film and starts out as a positive figure in the eyes of Belushi.
The film creates a mythos around Woodward claiming that “He [Belushi] even did [him] (Woodward)” as the movie repeats over and over beating the dead horse to the ground in an attempt to make a pun on words. The truth is I have never seen any shred of evidence in all the Saturday night live episodes I have seen and all the biographies I have read (Wired, Belushi, and Samurai Widow” that ever listed Woodward as a character John played or even attempted to play. The film however goes as far as to add a fictitious scene supposedly taken from Saturday Night Live. In the skit John meets Aykroyd, who is dressed as a cone headed Richard Nixon, on a Warf in the style of deep throat in an attempt to parody the investigative journalist.
As if the film were self-aware of the tribulation caused by Woodward and his book the jesting nature of Johns love for him is slowly turned into a seething hate as ghostly john finds what Woodward is writing is actually ruining his name. At this point in addition to the sad “did him” joke that comes back nonstop John now is adamant that Woodward wants to sleep with Judy, and now whenever Belushi comes across Woodward he points out said worry. Perhaps the only person that is portrayed with any true color to the real life counterpart is Dan Aykroyd. Who is [played straight and well by Gary Grooms as Dan Aykroyd who is constantly depicted as having cared and worried about his good friend and comedic partner with almost all of his interview scenes and comments word for word with what the real Aykroyd had said. Other deviations from real life and the book is the abortion of Johns Manager, publicist, and accountants into a signal character only seen a few times in the film.
The most astonishing and fictitious part of this film is by far the most disturbing aspect of it all. By the end of the film we have seen the many faces of John. Chiklis has put everything he could into his first acting role as the Saturday Night Live icon and it can be seen in his portrayal of Joe Cocker and the Samurai. The films inclusion of the backlash and hatred of Woodward for his work on the book pokes fun at the fact that john probably would have acted exactly as they depict in the film however it is in such bad taste I almost don’t want to talk about it. Since it’s such an important part of this blog however I suppose I can.
In the final moments of the film the pace of the film is drastically changed. For a short time during the filming of Continental Divide a romantic comedy about an investigative journalist who leaves Chicago to cover a bird watcher in the mountains as he has a price on his head do to a story on the mob. Belushi would hire a body guard to help him kick his addictions and get healthy for the role in an attempt to turn his life around. It worked for a good long time however his new found real life guardian angel would not be around forever and once he left feeling john was now able to handle things on his own John found the pressure too great. With the commercial failure of Continental Divide and Neighbors John fell back into drug addiction that would lead directly to his death. John Relapse scene surmounts the fell of the non-linear fantasy drama.
John enters a bathroom in an Los Angeles club only to bump into a fan. Belushi points out that in a recent article in a magazine he is compared as the next Cary Grant. And to celebrate the fan leaves him a bump of cocaine in a small tube. John exclaims “Na man, no more of that shit” and the fan leaves him alone in the bathroom. John is torn between his sobriety and the urge to relapse and he turns the water on to splash his face only for it to come out not water, but as pure white cocaine. He then goes to pull some paper towels from the container only for packets of cocaine to come out attached to the pieces. John freaks out and runs into a stall only to look down and see a trail of cocaine below his feet. John Snorts the cocaine, relapsing and bringing us to the final scenes in the movie.
The most faithfully adapted part in this film and maybe even the most true to real life is directly after this scene here John is now completely strung out and on a binge. He meets a photographer who would take the final photos of John alive in photo-shoot a day or two before his death. These final photos are recreated for the film s john is again overweight and sweeting with cocaine on his hand and a liquor bottle on the floor wearing a bandana and making faces for the camera. He calls Aykroyd who begs John to come home to Martha’s Vineyard to wind down and kick the junk. John agrees and makes plans to return home in a few days however as we all know he never makes it. This leads directly to the Bungalow.
As stated earlier Belushi was visited that last night in Bungalow 3 by Robert De Niro and Robin Williams albeit at separate times. This is never shown in the film. We are given an odd moment where John demands a grinder for his cocaine spilled all over one of the hotel pictures he has taken off the wall and used to cut on. The room is filled with people but it’s so dark they are only silhouettes. John acting strange then demands everyone to leave and he goes to the back bedroom where he is shot up by Cathy for the last time. The entire feel of this scene is on the verge of frightening. Something about the silhouettes of the people and the ambient creepy soundtrack lead one to feel as if John was in purgatory before he even died. Forced to act out the same binges over and over amongst people he really did not know.
This scene is interspersed with cuts of Woodward walking around the room investigating the scene left after John’s death. As if Woodward was there watching the entire thing take place everything is happening around him. He walks to the back bedroom where john is coughing uncontrollably for a moment before complete silence. There on the bed is John presumably dead of the overdose. Woodward walks over and attempts to wake him, at this point the fact that Woodward was previously just walking around a vacant crime scene doesn’t matter as he is now fully immersed in the events as if physically there. Slowly moving in towards John he is startled when John erupts awake having only intended to frighten Woodward. “I aint dead yet you fucker, stay away from my wife” he exclaims before launching into a very heavy and dark conversation led by Woodward as John literally slowly chokes to death in front of our eyes. It is a sick thing to see and for a fan such as myself I was very shocked at the depiction this film decided to go with here. The scene is so disgusting the need to quote it is a necessary evil.
Bob Woodward: John? John! John... Answer me, John. John! Why didn't you ever want to go home? What was so painful, that you couldn't even close your eyes at night without drugs?
John Belushi: I had an unhappy childhood!
Bob Woodward: Oh, come on, John. We all had an unhappy childhood
John Belushi: Vietnam? Agent Orange?
Bob Woodward: You didn't go.
John Belushi: Society fucked me over, like Lenny Bruce!
Bob Woodward: Like Lenny Bruce? You were a living legend, John! Your friend Aykroyd called you "America's guest". Everybody loved you!
John Belushi: Then I give up!
Bob Woodward: Oh. John, why did you shove a needle into your arm, day after...
John Belushi: BECAUSE I NEED IT! BECAUSE IT'S MINE! Cold bastard.
[pause, sweaty and breathing heavily]
Not only was Woodward steadfast in a deep conversation with John as he died but it got to the point where he was grilling the dying man for answers as to why he would let this happen to himself. Pointing out he had everything he could ever want in a loving wife, a great career, love and admiration from fans. To which John would get increasingly more angry until erupting in a roar with the statement “Because I need it, it’s mine!” in reference to the drugs. This scene is in such poor taste I could barely watch it. It is the lowest of low I have seen a Hollywood film go when depicting one of their own. The vast deviations from the already biased book adaption of John’s life lead this film to not only be a commercial failure but it has never been released on DVD and the VHS copy is out of print, save for the odd used or near pristine eBay copy. The strange decision to make the film follow a ghostly Belushi on a mission to save his own life while in denial of the fact that he was dead was so out of left field that the entire movie feels like one poor setup for a joke after another. The meaty dramatics only taking full effect in the final scenes of the film and going off the deep end with the conversation helps to cement this films blacklisted status with the final line delivered by Chiklis as Belushi being “ So you're just gonna sit there and watch me die?” before the camera pulls back over the bed and up as if Johns soul is looking down on his body as it rises to leave this world. The film ends with a Joe Cocker song never sung by John yet voiced over by Chiklis as his funeral precession, led by a motorcycle driving Aykroyd, winds through Martha’s Wynyard and comes to a close on Chiklis portraying Belushi in his Joe Cocker character as WIRED pans across the screen. Not only did this film blacklist itself but it almost single handedly killed Chiklis’ career before it had even started. The worst film adaption to ever grace the big screen. W-I-R-E-D-.
Belushi-Pisano, Judith. Belushi. New York: Rugged Land, 2005. Print.
Jacklin-Belushi, Judith. Samurai Widow. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1990. Print.
Peerce, Larry, dir. Wired. Perf. Michael Chiklis, Gary Grooms, J.T. Walsh, and Ray Sharkey.
Woodward, Bob. Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John belushi. New York: Pocket
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