As a once-over-lightly history of Saturday Night Live, the documentary Live From New York! has its merits — plenty of entertaining stories from the performers and writers, and from the show’s guiding genius, Lorne Michaels, about SNL’s amazing four-decade run.
That’s a lot of ground to cover in 81 minutes, and the film opts for a positive and breezy approach, largely sidestepping the juicy tidbits that some viewers might be looking for. There is, however, a modest look at SNL’s attempts to expand beyond a white male fraternity, the most interesting segment showing the backlash to controversial material performed by black cast member Leslie Jones.
Director Bao Nguyen offers a simple, noncontroversial premise: Saturday Night Live began as an anti-establishment attempt to upend mainstream television and eventually became part of that mainstream. This suggests that we’re going to get a more critical look than the movie ever delivers.
Live From New York! offers fewer performance bits than talking heads. Of the latter, the most notable comments (besides Michaels’) are from Chevy Chase, former writer Anne Beatts, Sen. Al Franken — a onetime SNL writer and performer — Steve Martin, frequent musical guest Paul Simon and the ubiquitous Tina Fey. We also hear briefly from Rudy Giuliani and Al Gore about the show’s real impact on politics.
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Some top performers, including Bill Murray and Eddie Murphy, are conspicuous by their absence outside of archival scenes. There’s no mention of the SNL-Hollywood link, which would seem a mandatory topic.
We are, however, treated to somber footage of the show’s first post-911 broadcast, in which New York City firefighters and cops (and then-Mayor Giuliani) are gathered on the show’s Rockefeller Center stage. The suggestion that SNL helped New York through the trauma possibly exaggerates the show’s importance.
The film may work best as a supplement to the underwhelming three-hours-plus extravaganza broadcast in February to celebrate SNL’s 40th anniversary. Glean that program’s best performance footage and meld it with the movie’s contemporary reminiscences, and you’ll have a DIY history better than either.
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Live From New York!
Director: Bao Nguyen
Cast: Lorne Michaels, Chevy Chase, Al Franken, Tina Fey
Running time: 81 min.