Admittedly, cramming 40 years of “Saturday Night Live” — or rather, 40 years of American history — into 82 minutes is a daunting task, particularly as it forces a documentary to chart the symbiotic relationship between real-life fact and contemporaneous farce. But despite some judiciously chosen excerpts from great comic bits, Bao Nguyen’s “Live From New York!” turns out to be as much a collection of soundbites as one might expect from the mainstream media that the show originally set out to satirize. Amorphous, superficial and sporadically very funny, this Tribeca Film Festival opener should delight if not enlighten the show’s myriad fans.
Though Nguyen posits a throughline, saying that what started out as a calculated subversion of societal sacred cows wound up as a revered American institution itself, the documentary comes off as too much of an apologia to fully follow its own logic. The film’s problematic dynamic is visible from the get-go in introductory shots where the camera reverently pans past empty seats at 30 Rock as ghost echoes of renowned one-liners (“two wild and crazy guys … ,” etc.) reverberate with a near-religious intensity. Soon afterward, creator/producer Lorne Michaels, early “SNL” scribe Ann Beatts, original cast member Chevy Chase and others describe their initially iconoclastic, quite non-reverential intent (“a variety show on acid,” ”a cross between ’60 Minutes’ and Monty Python,” “It was time to destroy TV”).
“Live From New York!” does a credible job of covering the show’s initial impact, a clip from Tom Snyder’s latenight broadcast where he cluelessly introduces the then-unknown cast being a case in point. But Nguyen quickly steers the film into political channels, which would be fine if it didn’t lose much of its comedic edge as a result. Why tap a polarizing pundit like Bill O’Reilly, of all people, to lead into an apolitical, purely improvisational clip of Gilda Radner chewing up the scenery as “Rosanne Rosannadanna”? Comments from longstanding “SNL” gag man and current Minnesota Sen. Al Franken — particularly those concerning the possible effect of Darrell Hammond’s and Will Ferrell’s respective depictions of Al Gore and George W. Bush on the 2000 presidential election — would resonate more strongly if accompanied by at least one clip from Franken’s hilarious “Me, Al Franken” self-promotions on “Weekend Update.”
A ’70s clip of Candice Bergen announcing herself as the show’s “first woman host” and alluding to the failure of the Equal Right Amendment — which occurred one mere week earlier — validates “SNL’s” reputation as a “living, breathing time capsule” and leads to discussions of the show’s lack of diversity in terms of race and gender. These criticisms, often shruggingly dismissed as anomalies and signs of the times, were best addressed in a self-satirical manner — as in a relatively recent sketch where guest host Kerry Washington, playing Michelle Obama, had to leave the set and come back dressed as Oprah Winfrey because of the underrepresentation of black women in the cast.
Michaels, drawn into controversy in clips from “Nightline” and elsewhere, increasingly asserts, “It’s important we stay nonpartisan.” Yet the film, even while voicing the show’s shift from critic to incarnation of the Establishment, falls into its own trap and completely misses its own point when it presents “SNL’s” embrace of Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 with a teary fervor that may have been excusable at the time, but now feels somewhat suspect.
Frequent cutaways to former hosts and cast members keep the film moving briskly, even if the absence of the acerbic Bill Murray seems a commentary in and of itself. Though “SNL” music guru Hal Willner offers a tantalizing survey of New York’s vital late-’70s music scene (in voiceover), Nguyen’s documentary later largely steers clear of the subject; the raw, live spectacle of the Pope-shredding Sinead O’Conner remains uneasily under-discussed. Particularly puzzling is the way the film completely ignores the show’s impact on the movie business, suggesting the narrowness of its concept of politics. In the end, “Live From New York!” registers as simultaneously too outsider and too insider — a perfect definition of mainstream media itself.