In his book Whose Lives Are They Anyway?: The Biopic as Contemporary Film Genre, Dennis Bingham refers to biopics as ‘a respectable genre of very low repute’. He goes on to explain that the entire concept of the biographical picture is one rooted in an easy-to-swallow and decidedly middlebrow tone that can be crowd-pleasing but typically leaves critics and scholars alike rolling their eyes. The specific formula of the biopic is so well-known that there are entire movies, like Walk Hard, dedicated to mocking it. These movies are simultaneously so general yet highly specific in the beats they hit — the tragic childhood, the rise to fame, the inevitable descent into addiction, the climactic Come-To-Jesus moment — that they serve as perfect actors’ vehicles for those with their eyes on Oscar gold. There’s a reason 12 of the past 19 Best Actor winners at the Academy Awards have been for performances in biographical or historical dramas. With any biopic, it’s helpful to expect mediocrity and be surprised when the quality is anything vaguely beyond that.
Of course, with tropes this well-worn and with stories so desperately crying out for the Hollywood spotlight, it’s not hard for film-makers to stumble hard. The batting average for biopics is especially interesting because they’re seldom expected to be truly excellent, so when one is widely credited as a stinker, you know it must be bad. I’ve watched way too many dull, tedious and time-wasting biopics in my time, but the search for the absolute worst one was something altogether more unusual. However, I think I found an answer. So here it is. My friends, let me introduce you to Wired, the biopic on the life and death of John Belushi.
This movie has EVERYTHING: Pinball life-or-death matches, Colonel Sanders, sushi chef autopsies, casual racism, Richard Nixon as a Conehead, and one of the 20th century’s most iconic journalists harassing a dying man for his drug use. Oh, and also Belushi’s a ghost for most of it. Yes, it is that kind of movie.
The chances are you may not have even known this movie existed. That’s partly because history has done a great job of burying it. John Belushi, the actor and comedian best known for Saturday Night Live, National Lampoon’s Animal House, and Blues Brothers, still casts a vast shadow over Hollywood. He regularly tops lists of the great comedians of the ’80s and the best SNL cast members of all time. Many of his closest friends and collaborators, like Dan Aykroyd, are still working in the business today. In the dishearteningly long narrative of Hollywood tragedies that have become industry legends, the short life and death by overdose of Belushi remains one of its most infamous tales. There is certainly a compelling story to be found in Belushi’s burst of fame, his hard-partying, and death at the Chateau Marmont at the age of 33. Indeed, there has been talk for several years now of another rumored biopic on his life making its way through town. While there have been biopics made more recently about figures who lived during our lifetime and well after Belushi, there’s something about his story that somehow continues to feel too soon for creative re-imaginings. That’s what makes the existence of Wired so mind-boggling.
The biopic, made in 1989 — a mere seven years after Belushi’s death — was based on the 1984 biography Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, written by Bob Woodward. Yes, that Bob Woodward. Belushi’s widow Judith approached Woodward while he was working as a reporter at the Washington Post and asked him to look into the LAPD’s handling of Belushi’s death. As he started writing the biography, Judith Belushi, John’s brother Jim, and Aykroyd, among many other friends and associates, sat down to be interviewed. Woodward seemed like a solid if unconventional choice to write the book, and certainly a guy who would offer a well-rounded portrait of Belushi beyond the press image of his untimely death. That didn’t happen.
Wired sold well but was slammed by basically everyone associated with Belushi. Most felt it was exploitative of Belushi’s legacy and was far more interested in lurid recounts of his drug use than his work or personal life. In 2013, Tanner Colby, who co-authored his own Belushi biography with Judith, dissected how much of Woodward’s assumptions were rooted in sloppy reporting and a lack of interest in the true story. He wrote, ‘getting the scoop is only part of the equation. Once you have the facts, you have to present those facts in context and in proportion to other facts in order to accurately reflect reality. It’s here that Woodward fails.’ This was Woodward’s basic problem: By diligently documenting every single moment of drug-taking in Belushi’s life, he reduced his entire existence down to the drugs, to the point where you wonder why everyone’s bigging him up as a comedic genius.
Making this into a movie was never going to be easy, and I will say this for the team behind Wired: They certainly didn’t take the easy way out. Adapted for the screen by Earl Mac Rauch, whose best-known work is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, it flopped on release and to this day has yet to receive a DVD release. In the lead role was a then-unknown actor named Michael Chiklis. He went through six to eight months of auditions and was chosen out of over 200 actors for the role. He put on 30 pounds for the part and underwent extensive research and training to fully embody Belushi. The film didn’t have the rights to use everyone’s names, but Judy, Aykroyd, and Cathy Smith — the woman who administered his fatal overdose — are all present, while others have had their names changed. Another key figure in Wired: Bob Woodward, played by J.T. Walsh. I’ll explain why later.
The movie opens with Chiklis doing a surprisingly solid job performing as Belushi, before cutting to black as two unknown voices crack this ‘joke’.
‘You know who we should get for this movie? John Belushi.’
‘Leo, he’s dead.’
‘I know everyone’s made lousy movies. Who hasn’t made a stiff every now and then?’
‘No, you don’t seem to understand me. John Belushi is really dead.’
And then we cut to Belushi in the morgue, waking up and realizing he’s dead, leading him to run naked through the halls screaming. A reminder that this movie is not a comedy. And it only gets worse from here.
The timeline jumps around between Belushi’s life, his time on SNL and various movies, Woodward’s investigation into his death, and Belushi being led around history by an angel taxi driver played by Ray Sharkey. This leads the audience to discover two things: One, that Belushi’s ghost was super racist (he uses all manner of anti-Hispanic slurs towards Angel), and two, that this movie exists mostly to be a snuff movie disguised as an after-school special on why drugs are bad. Did you know heroin isn’t great for you? I know, right?!
As Belushi is guided through his past by his ethnic stereotype of an angel whom he continues to be casually racist towards, he becomes aware that Woodward is investigating him and becomes convinced the journalist is out to smear his good name. Oh, the irony. At one point, Chiklis plays Belushi impersonating Woodward as he offers to reveal the identity of Deep Throat to Richard Nixon who is also now a Conehead, as played by Dan Aykroyd (Gary Groomes, who plays him, is almost hilariously bad in his pallid impersonation). The movie doesn’t seem to know if these moments, as well as various skits performed by Belushi (written specifically for the film since SNL weren’t handing over the rights), are part of his past or moments of fantasy. It doesn’t help that Wired doesn’t seem to understand how live sketch-comedy works. Not one of those moments is anywhere near close to funny, which is a pretty big problem when you’re making a film about one of the decade’s true comedy icons.
However, there are plenty of moments of unintentional comedy so dark that you worry for your eternal soul. During the autopsy scene, Belushi remains awake and screaming as he is cut open by a giddy sushi chef. He then starts doing a Marlon Brando impersonation. Belushi being shot up with heroin, in a scene shot like something from an Andy Warhol movie, is contrasted with him on a road trip with Aykroyd where he farts a lot. On his death bed, as Woodward interrogates him for shooting up heroin, Belushi’s ghost plays for his life on a Blues Brothers pinball machine. An attempt to get Belushi’s coffin onto a private plane results in slapstick hijinks — get it? It’s because John Belushi was fat! — so they have to prop up his corpse in a seat. To say Wired is completely tone-deaf would be one of life’s bigger understatements.
Wired doesn’t have any interest in Belushi beyond his status as a cautionary tale and fat funny guy who falls down a lot — an image he tried eagerly to escape during his lifetime — but it’s even less concerned with the supporting cast. Dan Aykroyd, one of the great comedy figures of our time and a razor-sharp presence who was at his best when bouncing off the more erratic Belushi, is basically a boring sidekick here. Judith Belushi mumbles a lot of bland sentiments about wanting people to know ‘the real man’ she married. Even Bob Woodward is more a robot who talks in judgmental platitudes than a character. This is the inevitable side-effect of the movie just not caring about anything beyond moralizing over a man who’s not here to defend himself. It’s a film that wants to be judge, jury, and executioner on Belushi, lecturing a dead man for doing the thing that killed him, all while glorying in the ghoulish imagery of him shooting up and leaving behind a bloated corpse.
The one saving grace of his mess is Michael Chiklis. While he’s clearly in way over his head with this role and plays Belushi a little too baby-faced, he gets the manic energy and brutishness of a man used to living at 100% all the time. However, even he can’t escape the horrors of this script, which primarily requires him to bellow every line and fall around a lot so the audience can have a laugh at the fat guy who trips a lot. Chiklis later admitted that he couldn’t get work for 18 months after Wired and feared he’d been blackballed by the industry for tarnishing a legend’s image.
It’s not hard to see why the team behind Wired swung for the fences in this manner. A force of nature like Belushi couldn’t have a run-of-the-mill biopic so why not make something that tries to be as irreverent and daring as he was? That’s not a bad aim for a biopic, but whatever intent the people making Wired had gone right out the window at some point during production. Hell, it was probably doomed the moment they decided to use Woodward’s book as the primary source material. The end result of this trainwreck is something truly sleazy and embarrassing, a stain on Belushi’s legacy that feels like a character assassination mixed in with a snuff movie.
Wired stands, in my opinion, as the worst biopic ever made because, despite its obvious ambition, it’s a hit-job of journalistic ineptitudes and caricature that claims to offer piercing insight into the dark side of Hollywood and America-at-large. One of pop culture’s most intriguing figures, a man whose presence is still felt in modern comedy today, is reduced to a bumbling boor to educate the gormless on the evils of drugs, but the movie doesn’t even have the skill to properly depict the spiral of addiction. And then it ends with Bob Woodward looming over a man nearing the end of his life, getting in the last word just in case you, the audience, didn’t get the message that drugs are bad. Other biopics may be more formulaic or more incompetently made, but it’s Wired that makes you feel dirty for even acknowledging its existence.
And now I’ve just introduced this mess to a whole new group of unknown spectators. Hurray for me, I guess…
Header Image Source: Getty Images.