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.
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.