A variety show on acid: Imperfect but fun documentary considers Saturday Night Live
In 1975, a new variety show premiered on NBC that was unlike anything that had come before it; it was, according to Laraine Newman, one of the show’s original cast members, a cross between 60 Minutes and Monty Python. Despite its ups and downs, after 40 years on the air, Saturday Night Live (or SNL, as it’s more commonly known in the pop culture lexicon), shows no sign of slowing down, and continues to both reflect and influence American culture. Director Bao Nguyen’s new film, Live from New York!, which takes its title from the show’s opening introduction, explores the history and impact of the storied comedy program in a documentary that is both highly entertaining and slightly frustrating.
Nguyen is primarily a cinematographer, and this film is his first documentary feature, so some of its problems may be chalked up to inexperience on his part. Indeed, the film often feels like a rehash of the self-congratulatory SNL 40-year anniversary special that aired on NBC a few months ago. If you’re an SNL fan, of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing (as who doesn’t love seeing clips of favorite bits, which pervade Nguyen’s film, and are always a delight), but, as such, the film ends up feeling like a wasted opportunity for a more in depth exploration of SNL’s history and its behind-the-scenes stories.
Similar to that NBC special, in addition to spotlighting classic and beloved clips, Nguyen’s film’s strengths also include interviews with some of SNL’s best and brightest cast members and hosts (Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase, and Garrett Morris from the show’s inaugural seasons, and Steve Martin, Dana Carvey, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Will Ferrell, Fred Armisen, Chris Rock, Molly Shannon, Andy Samberg, Seth Meyers, Leslie Jones, John Goodman, Alec Baldwin, and Candice Bergen, among others, from its later seasons. Bergen, incidentally, is the one who wryly calls the show “a variety show on acid.”). Nguyen’s film does go a bit further than the NBC special, though, by also featuring interviews with lesser known crew (even the cue-card guy gets his say), including producers, writers, set designers, musicians, and other luminaries.
In one of the film’s best and most moving segments, the show’s longtime producer, Lorne Michaels, and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani reflect quite thoughtfully and eloquently on preparing and airing the show’s first post-9/11 broadcast. Indeed, the film’s wide ranging discourse on the show’s cultural impact – especially on American politics – is particularly compelling.
Nguyen’s film also touches on some of SNL’s controversies during its long run; several cast members, for example, discuss both perceived and real sexism and racism (even today, the show is still often accused of having a diversity problem) on set. Other contentious topics mentioned include the so-called “lost” years after Lorne Michaels departed for a few seasons in the early ‘80s, when the show was almost cancelled, musical guest Sinead O’Connor’s infamous ripping up a photo of the Pope, Leslie Jones’s recent Weekend Update monologue about slavery, and the effect the Internet has had on the show.
“Mentioned” is indeed perhaps the best word to use here, since the film, unfortunately, doesn’t go much beyond offering a few cursory words to examine these or other seminal moments in the show’s history. In fact, Nguyen all together ignores the deaths of some of the show’s biggest stars (John Belushi, Chris Farley, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, Gilda Radner). Some discussion from surviving cast and crew of how these losses affected them and the production would have been interesting. The film also steers clear of related topics, such as drug and alcohol use and addiction, which almost seems naïve.
Of course, in Nguyen’s defense, fully covering 40 years’ worth of material in an 80-minute running time is nearly impossible, and the terrific clips and interviews that Nguyen does give us are enjoyable enough to make up for the film’s thinness in other areas. As Andy Samberg muses in the film, “giving so much happiness to so many people is a worthwhile thing.”
Live from New York! opens today at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco and at the Landmark Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley.