Live From New York!
2015, NR, 82 min. Directed by Bao Nguyen.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 12, 2015
Size matters. For proof, look no further than the cinematic graveyard of Saturday Night Live skits, those five-minute bits of comic perfection, stretched to their death at feature-length. Size matters, too, in Live From New York!, a portrait of SNL at 40, but in inverse: 82 minutes isn’t nearly long enough to consider every angle – or even many angles – of a cultural institution.
First-time filmmaker Bao Nguyen opens this documentary survey with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” a strong song selection to score a montage of Saturday Night Live archival footage clocking its growth from avant-garde to establishment, and interspersed with images from matching eras (like Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, and the grubby, pre-Giuliani New York). You might read the opening as a statement of purpose – that Nguyen is most invested in the show as a monolith: the sum, not its parts. But what is Saturday Night Live without its parts, that rowdy mélange of personalities (and so many of them self-destructive)? When Gil Scott-Heron raps that “the revolution will not go better with Coke,” it rings like a homonymic call-out to all the brilliant, idiosyncratic, powder-nosed comics who turned TV comedy upside down and shook it for loose change. Most of them aren’t even named here.
But a lot of the cast, along with limited crew and a grab bag of other talking heads (Brian Williams, Adam Horovitz, Bill O’Reilly), do sit for the camera. They deliver insightful, clubby, frequently funny sound bites about SNL’s role as a cultural mirror and occasional conversation starter – a specific scope that excludes any exploration of the writers’ room, the grueling production cycle, how the talent is culled (or cut), the live band, and about a million other avenues of exploration. What the film does do is cycle through the departure and return of producer Lorne Michaels; two of the show’s longstanding problem spots: the lack of female and minority representation; the Andrew Dice Clay and Sinead O’Connor dustups; the political humor that’s been whetstoned in later years; the show’s role in the post-9/11 healing process; and its share-this surge in the Internet age. It’s not uninteresting stuff. It’s just not the whole story.