REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER
For Digital First Media
“Saturday Night Live” recently celebrated its fortieth year on television. It is only natural that a documentary film about the show would emerge on this anniversary. Taking its title from the program’s opening line, “Live from New York,” provides a retrospective assessment of the show and its considerable impact on society.
If you were around forty years ago, you might recall being at a party and having the television turned on at 11:30, just so everyone could watch “Saturday Night Live” together. After all, back in the days that antedated VCRs, the show was a big deal. No one wanted to miss what that week’s jocular take would be on topical subject matters. This manifested a phenomenon that might be termed, “appointment viewing.”
The film recounts the inception of “Saturday Night Live.” Show creator and producer, Lorne Michaels, had imagined that he would marry the hard-hitting television news magazine, “60 Minutes,” with the satirical irreverence of Monty Python, sort of a variety show on LSD. Cue to clips of, “Hee Haw,” the veritable antithesis of “Saturday Night Live.”
Michaels recruited the show’s talented original cast. It included Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi, Garrett Morris, Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman. This stellar group provided what remains almost universally regarded as the Golden Age of “Saturday Night Live.”
“Live From New York!” recounts the fact that political humor was dead on network television. It inserts clips from “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.” These serve to remind us how network execs had cancelled it, just to mollify their more conservative stations. These affiliates had been outraged by the show’s anti-Vietnam War stance and its other counter-cultural sensibilities.
When “Saturday Night Live” made its debut back in 1975, many pundits predicted that the same fate would inevitably befall this cutting edge show. However, the show became a huge ratings hit. In the course of a few weeks, cast members, who had been obscurities, were suddenly national celebrities.
After five years, Michaels and the remaining members of the original cast all departed the show en masse to pursue individual projects. Again, supposed experts predicted the imminent demise of the show.
Instead, the show languished through five years of abject mediocrity. “Live From New York!” does take pains to point out that it was during this lackluster era that the career of Eddie Murphy, one of the show’s biggest all-time stars, was launched.
Fast forward another five years. Michaels is shown returning to the show that he had sworn he had left for good. Michaels is shown throughout the film commenting extensively on the show’s history and challenges.
“Live From New York!” does a good job of cobbling together some of the show’s most controversial and impactful vignettes. We have Sinnead O’Connor’s celebrated shredding of the Pope’s photograph. There is the episode that reprised the Presidential debate with Darrell Hammond as Al Gore and Will Ferrell as George W. Bush. The film conjectures that the comedic skit, more than the debate itself, defined the public perception of the candidates. According to “Live From New York!,” the show left us with the indelible image of Gore as a stuffed shirt know-it-all, while Bush was the guy that you’d rather have a beer with. What documentary about “Saturday Night Live” would be complete without Tina Fey’s spot on depiction of Sarah Palin? The film includes actual footage of Palin giving a disjointed, historically inaccurate answer about Paul Revere’s ride, then juxtaposes Fey’s uncanny rendition with it.
First time feature film director, Bao Nguyen, has persuaded plenty of cast and crew members to be interviewed for the project. In addition to Michaels; early staff writer, Ann Beatts, cast members Chevy Chase and Jane Curtin; and various other long-time production assistants provide anecdotes about the show’s earliest days.
In addition to show insiders, such pundits as Rudy Giuliani, Brian Williams, and Bill O’Reilly offer their observations. Giuliani recounts being the host on the show’s first post-9/11 episode and what was at stake at that pivotal moment in our nation’s history. Were the filmmakers tempted to excise Williams from the final cut in the wake of the revelations about his unfortunate lapses in verisimilitude? Does the film really need acerbic ideologue, Bill O’Reilly, to introduce an apolitical segment, featuring the late Gilda Radner as Rosanne Rosannadanna? What is the logic to that?
How can a film with such an abbreviated running time do justice to a cultural phenomenon that lasted for four decades? Despite these quibbles and the egregious absence of Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray as interviewees, there are plenty of other talking heads and vintage footage to make this flick worth a gander.
“Live From New York!” reminds the viewer of how genuinely revolutionary “Saturday Night Live” was when made its debut forty years ago. The film also forces us to confront the extent to which “Saturday Night Live” has lost the anarchic spirit that once made it such an important cultural touchstone.
*** No MPAA Rating. 90 minutes. Behind the Line Productions
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.