Review: Live From New York!
PLOT: An insider's look behind the scenes of Saturday Night Live.
REVIEW: A lot has been written this year about Saturday Night Live's 40th anniversary. Whatever can be said about the show's uneven quality over the years no one can deny that it thoroughly changed the landscape of comedy with many of the all-time greats, including Bill Murray, John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig and more emerging from its hallowed tradition. That said, the definitive account of Saturday Night Live will always be James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales' book, 'Live From New York', which shares a title with this bite-sized, entertaining if too celebratory documentary.
The fact is, Saturday Night Live's history has already been aptly chronicled on film. Every decade has gotten a good televised documentary that's as comprehensive as Lorne Michaels will likely allow. This feature version which I assume was made with streaming audiences in mind (someone even name checks Netflix) feels like a cliff's notes version of the show's official mythology. As such, don't go into this expecting stories from the early wild days, where drug abuse was rampant and the humor was dangerous (in the best way possible). Rather this sticks to the official company line, skimming quickly through the early years, barely mentioning the Dick Ebersol era (Julia Louis Dreyfus is the only cast member of that era to be interviewed) and barely acknowledging the often tense, troubled atmosphere which not coincidentally made for the best TV.
To give director Bao Nguyen credit, some uglier parts of the show's history are skimmed over. Garrett Morris' tenure is acknowledged as having been tainted by the racial insensitivity of the staff who at one point refused to cast him as a doctor because they didn't think audiences could accept a black doctor. The sexism of the early days is also briefly mentioned, although its made to look like this was only really a problem in the Ebersol era which if you've read the book you'll know isn't the case.
It's good that Nguyen at least acknowledges this but his handling of Lorne Michaels is pretty softball, with him never having to answer any of the tough questions even though it's said over and over nothing ever gets through without his OK. The documentary actually gets much better once they get into the nineties, with an interesting section focused on the controversy around Andrew Dice Clay's stint as host and the infamous episode where Sinead O'Connor tore up a picture of the pope. Neither Clay nor O'Connor are given the opportunity to weigh in, but Chris Rock comes to O'Connor's defense, and winds up being one of the more eloquent interviewees. The stories behind the first post-9/11 broadcast are also very interesting although this episode is better explained in the book. Many prominent political figures are on-hand to weigh in about how the show helped or hindered them, with someone even guessing that Al Gore lost the 2000 election because of how he was depicted on the show.
A full-on honest depiction of Saturday Night Live's history will probably never really be made with the show's official cooperation, but for what it is LIVE FROM NEW YORK! is entertaining. There's some fascinating insight into how the show paved the way for The Daily Show/Stephen Colbert brand of humor, as well as how the SNL Digital Shorts played a big part in Youtube's early success (although no mention is made of the fact that NBC pulled all the clips and no longer allows YouTube to show its content). Basically, it represents the company line and is too celebratory to be seen as an authentic look into the show's history. Still, it's entertaining and worth checking out for fans.