Neither as inside-baseballish as one might have feared nor as revelatory as one might have hoped, "Saturday Night" sustains interest as a semi-anthropological view of the weeklong creative frenzy that results in a single 90-minute episode of "Saturday Night Live." Best suited for fest, homevid and niche-cable venues, it may prove even more satisfying when released in a DVD package that also would enable viewers to watch the actual episode prepared during the docu. Such a double feature could be an invaluable teaching tool for would-be comic writers and performers, and producers of live telecasts.

Neither as inside-baseballish as one might have feared nor as revelatory as one might have hoped, “Saturday Night” sustains interest as a semi-anthropological view of the weeklong creative frenzy that results in a single 90-minute episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Best suited for fest, homevid and niche-cable venues, it may prove even more satisfying when released in a DVD package that also would enable viewers to watch the actual episode prepared during the docu. Such a double feature could be an invaluable teaching tool for would-be comic writers and performers, and producers of live telecasts.

The story behind the story: Actor (and NYU cinema studies student) James Franco was inspired to direct the docu after hosting “SNL” in September 2008, and approached longtime producer Lorne Michaels for permission to trace the development of an episode — showing everything from the initial pitching of sketches through construction of sets to live broadcast — in a cinema-verite format.

Michaels gave his OK. It’s worth noting, however, that in the course of an interview included in the docu, the producer casually notes that, because many of the “SNL” cast members are used to performing oncamera, Franco shouldn’t be surprised if they perform for his camera as well. Franco can’t say he wasn’t warned.

Time and again during “Saturday Night,” one gets the sense that, for all their off-the-cuff remarks and occasional admissions of insecurity, “SNL” headliners such as Bill Hader, Will Forte and Andy Samberg are playing to a friendly audience more than they’re opening up for an objective interviewer. Even the behind-the-scenes personnel sound less than fully spontaneous, although their comments — like those of the show’s stars — are often amusing and/or insightful. It’s especially interesting, albeit unsurprising, to hear that almost everyone currently involved with “SNL” — even, to a certain degree, Michaels — fully realizes they are competing with the audience’s nostalgic memories of favorite stars and sketches from past seasons.

Shifting between grainy black-and-white and crisp color to delineate backstage preparation and onstage activity, Franco follows the production of the Dec. 6, 2008, episode with guest host John Malkovich. Many of the regulars agree that Malkovich is a great choice and a good sport. But that makes the competition among the writers and writer-performers — particularly those whose sketch proposals haven’t been greenlit lately — all the more intense.

Title cards help the viewer follow the progress of production, beginning with Monday sessions where writers do their best to convince Michaels and Malkovich (and, in some cases, themselves) that this or that premise could be developed into a hilarious sketch. Pic then charts the sometimes frantic, sometimes borderline-humiliating winnowing process, followed by marathon scriptwriting sessions that indicate most of the writers are certifiable insomniacs.

There are a few twists along the way, particularly when a sketch about a jingle singer for a carpet dealership — which looks rather promising during development — is unceremoniously dropped after failing to sufficiently impress the audience at the final dress rehearsal. Ultimately, it’s very easy to share the cast and crew’s palpable relief when the show concludes without apparent mishap. But the docu dutifully emphasizes that any sense of satisfaction will be short-lived: In two days, the whole process will have to begin again.

Franco frequently places himself in the frame while conducting backstage interviews, but he’s too engagingly enthusiastic for his presence to seem annoying or intrusive. But a few of the rough-edged, naturally lit black-and-white sequences come across as more affected than authentic.

Saturday Night

Docu

Production

A Rabbit Bandini Prods. production. Produced by Vince Jolivette. Directed by James Franco.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, HD), Pedro Gomez Milan; editor, Ian Olds; sound, Neil Benezra. Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Spotlight Premieres), March 17, 2010. Running time: 94 MIN.

With

John Malkovich, James Franco, Bill Hader, Jason Sudeikis, Lorne Michaels, Will Forte, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Higgins, Andy Samberg, Kristen Wiig.
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