‘Live From New York!’ Documentary Is More Than Just a History of ‘SNL’

When the Tribeca Film Festival announced this year’s opening night selection was Live From New York!, a documentary about the history and impact of Saturday Night Live, your correspondent felt a mixture of excitement and concern — the former as a longtime fan and aficionado of the show, the latter as someone who, as a longtime fan and aficionado of the show, wonders what the hell’s left to say about it. We are, after all, celebrating (and, it seems, celebrating and celebrating and celebrating) the 40th year of its existence, and between the anniversary pieces and books and that ragtag mess of an SNL 40 special, we’re flirting with a serious case of burnout, and the anniversary itself is still several months away. So it’s a relief to report that Live From New York!, which kicked off the fest last night with a raucous screening at New York’s Beacon Theatre, isn’t just a rehash of the same old stories and clips. It’s a stylish and entertaining examination of why it’s still on the air, 40 years on — and why we’re still talking about it.

And, discombobulating moments of watching TV at a film festival aside, Live is quite a logical fit for Tribeca as well. After all, this is a festival that was instigated to fill less a commercial or artistic need than a civic one; TFF 1.0 was held in the spring of 2002, to bring some attention and excitement to a decimated Lower Manhattan. And one of the most significant moments in SNL’s history — and in this film about it — was the show’s return to the air the previous fall, amidst anthrax envelopes at 30 Rock and “Will we ever laugh again?” commentary. Live From New York! is a short movie (it clocks in at less than 90 minutes), but an efficient one, and director Bao Nguyen evocatively snapshots the antsiness and uncertainty of that cultural moment.

Promo art for "Live From New York!"

But such moments are what the film is really about, and what makes it different — and thus noteworthy — from the countless retrospectives and histories that have preceded it. (Hell, this isn’t even the first SNL doc to play Tribeca; James Franco’s Saturday Night screened here in 2010.) Nguyen opens with the expected material about the origins of the show, the old interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, and the clips from the early shows, so it seems as though we’re going to see a fairly conventional history.

And then the filmmaker does something interesting: he smoothly shifts into a kind of free-form thematic exploration, punting the chronological structure and hopscotching through the show’s history. They still hit the high points, but it’s not the greatest-hits reel that so many SNL considerations become — there are no “wild and crazy guys,” no cheerleaders, no cowbell, no Nerds, no “Schweddy balls,” no Stefon, only the briefest cutaway of the Blues Brothers. Nguyen is more interested in how Saturday Night Live affected the culture than how it affected comedy, and that’s the far more interesting approach (particularly since the latter ground has been so well trod).

This is not to say that the film’s uninterested in the comic legacy of the show, or its nuts and bolts (one of the pleasures is the casual spotlight on key crew members who have been there for literally decades). But this approach not only allows a consideration of how its satire has influenced culture and politics, and a close look at its controversies; it also allows Nguyen to address some of the problematic elements of its legacy, such as its much-discussed “boy’s club” element and diversity problem. And other lapses aren’t commented on directly, but are brought up and left for consideration; it’s worth remembering that SNL was once a far more wide-ranging variety show that took real risks in its bookings (can you imagine them putting someone like Leon Redbone on these days?) and its subversive humor.

Still from "Live From New York!"

Much of that humor was, as we all know, thanks to the copious amounts of drugs consumed backstage, and one of the film’s few glaring oversights is the degree to which that element of its legacy is ignored. Maybe everyone’s tired of telling (or hearing) those stories, but the way the show spoke to drug culture, and put that culture on display, was a big part of its impact. There are other, minor stumbles as well — a few missing voices in the interviews, a few inexplicable inclusions (I get that Brian Williams’ inclusion is just bad timing, but who thought inviting a sneering Bill O’Reilly was a good idea?).

Those complaints aside, Live from New York! is a smart, fast, funny documentary that may not offer reams of new information, but looks at the show through a broader prism than such celebrations usually encompass. And thus, it doesn’t get bogged down in the march through time (“and then they discovered Eddie Murphy,” that kinda thing) that can make projects like this a drag. They know that we know who these people are; it gets at what’s great about them, and about the show, and what’s important about it as well.

Live From New York! opened the Tribeca Film Festival, which runs through April 26.