Judith Belushi, the widow of comedian John, and his manager Bernie Brillstein asked Robert Woodward — the writer of All the President’s Men and the man who joined who Carl Bernstein to break the story of Watergate — to write a book about Belushi to counter the many rumors that had started after the comedian’s death on March 5, 1982.
I can remember that day. I was ten years old, came home from school and we heard the story on the radio on the way to dinner. I’d been a fan of Saturday Night Live since it started, even if in Pittsburgh we watched it on a different channel that the NBC affiliate as Chiller Theater was such a big deal.
Woodward and Belushi were from the same town in Illinois and had friends in common. Belushi was even a fan. But after the writer interviewed numerous people and wrote his book, he never showed it to John’s widow. What followed was Wired. a sensationalist book that painted exactly the picture that Judith and Brillstein wanted to never be known.
Tanner Colby, who had co-authored the 2005 book Belushi: A Biography with Judith, said of Woodward’s book: “It’s like someone wrote a biography of Michael Jordan in which all the stats and scores are correct, but you come away with the impression that Michael Jordan wasn’t very good at playing basketball.”
A major example that critics cite is that in the book, John Landis has to guide Belushi by the hand in how to perform the cafeteria scene in Animal House. Those there content that Belushi did the scene in one improvised take all on his own.
Belushi’s best friend and fellow Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd beyond hated the book and said that Woodward “spoke with me about an hour and a half, and you know there’s things in the book I don’t remember saying to him…”
He went on to say “He certainly has avoided the issue of what a funbag John was, what a great guy he was, what a warm, humorous, really, you know…concerned, and bright, educated, well-read individual this guy was. How did he get to be so successful? He was smart, you know, he wasn’t just given his break, and he had to work for what he had, and Woodward completely skirts that, and it’s a depressing, sordid, tragic book…and for my part I just think that it’s really depressing reading.”
Woodward wanted to sell the movie rights as soon as the book was published, but found no buyers. He said, “A large portion of Hollywood didn’t want this movie made because there’s too much truth in it.”
Producers Edward S. Feldman (the man who got both Hot Dog…the Movie and Hamburger the Motion Picture made; he also produced The Hitcher, The Truman Show and Witness) and Charles R. Meeker were the folks brave enough to fund the film. It was written by Earl Mac Rauch — yes, the same writer of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension — and directed by Larry Peece, who also made AIP’s The Big T.N.T. Show, The Other Side of the Mountain and A Woman Named Jackie.
The movie makes a wild departure from the book by having Belushi be followed by a guardian angel (Ray Sharkey!) who is leading him to either Heaven or Hell. They had to do something, as they were given no rights to anything connected to Saturday Night Live. If that something was a The Seventh Seal pastiche with pinball instead of chess, that was what they did.
Wired had problems finding a distributor as many of the major studios refused to distribute it. Now was that because of the conspiracy that people didn’t want the public to know how bad drugs were or because the movie is so insufferably bad? The jury is out but leaning toward the latter.
Brillstein believed that the filmmakers made up the controversy to sell this movie like William Castle would, saying “The only thing that the producers have to hang on to is the image of Wired as “the movie that Hollywood tried to stop.” When it played Cannes, the reception was hostile, with reporters attacking Woodward with questions about why he was a character in the movie.
John Landis threatened to sue and he’s not even named in the movie but suggested. Then again, helicopter noises play when he appears to hammer home that this is the same person who killed Vic Morrow and two children on the set of The Twilight Zone: The Movie. And Aykroyd pulled no punches, saying “I have witches working now to jinx the thing. I hope it never gets seen and I am going to hurl all the negative energy I can and muster all my hell energies. My thunderbolts are out on this one, quite truthfully.” A year later, he got J.T. Walsh, who plays Woodward in this movie, fired from the movie Loose Cannons.
You know who got the worst out of this? Michael Chiklis, in one of his first roles, who isn’t horrible as Belushi. He was picked out of tons of actors for the role and it took years for his acting career to recover. That said, he personally apologized to Jim Belushi when they met and the two embraced, as Belushi was always under the impression Chiklis was deceived as well by the producers. For his part, Jim visited the office of Feldman and trashed his desk.
As for the film itself, it moves through Belushi’s life in a non-linear fashion, with made up sketches like “Samurai Baseball,” the Blues Brothers singing Wilson Pickett’s “634-5789” and Belushi as a bee singing Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee” invented for the film — again due to Lorne Michaels refusing to allow the movie to use any of Saturday Night Live‘s IP — and then a close where Belushi sings Joe Cocker’s “You Are So Beautiful to Me” alongside the real Billy Preston, the only person from that era to be involved with this film.
It also totally takes a few pages from Sid and Nancy by having a cab ride symbolize the boat across the river Styx and having Joe Strummer’s song “Love Kills” play.
There’s a great story about the life and death of John Belushi, one of triumph and tragedy, intelligence and sadly, stupidity. But this? This will never be it.