We start with clips of the impossibly young and fresh-faced likes of Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Jane Curtin as they audition for the show that would become “Saturday Night Live.”
It’s like watching footage of the Beatles circa 1962. They don’t know what’s coming, but we sure do.
Cut to a montage of news footage of the last 40 years, set to “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” by Gil Scott-Heron.
“The revolution will not go better with Coke …” raps Scott-Heron. “The revolution will be no rerun, brothers — the revolution will be live.”
Electric stuff. Feels like we’re in for a fresh and cutting-edge take on the “Saturday Night Live” revolution.
And at times, “Live From New York!” delivers on that promise, especially when director Bao Nguyen focuses on the show’s impactful political satire and how it has shaped the national debate over the last four decades, from Chevy Chase turning Gerald Ford into a stumbling clod to Dana Carvey’s affectionately loopy take on George H.W. Bush to Darrell Hammond’s devastatingly effective channeling of Al Gore to Tina Fey’s perfect impersonation of Sarah Palin.
Unfortunately, most of the film is a fairly standard chronology in which we see glimpses of familiar bits and hear from an admittedly impressive array of alums and guest hosts who offer sincere but in most cases not particularly new insights and memories.
For hardcore fans of “SNL,” and I include myself among those legions, “Live From New York!” is a solid, pleasant 82-minute walk down memory lane. But given that we’ve just been through the 40th anniversary celebration, cresting with that marathon of a TV special, it just doesn’t feel particularly necessary.
Nguyen employs an irritating technique of starting a sound bite and letting it play while showing us meaningless cover shots. Either we waste time and effort trying to identify the celebrity voice (a maddening game that takes us out of the moment), or we have to wait to see the face and the behind-the-scenes title of the person speaking.
Why? Why not just show us who’s doing the talking from the start, so we have the context in which to appreciate what they’re saying?
Of course it’s cool to hear “SNL” guru Lorne Michaels, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin, Chris Rock, Jimmy Fallon, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell and dozens of others share a memory or two, but we’ve heard many of them talk about “SNL” before. I found myself wishing “Live From New York!” had spent more time on the fascinating interviews with the writers and longtime staffers.
Nguyen does fine work illustrating how “SNL” went from the ultimate outsider show to the ultimate institution, stopping along the way to touch briefly on controversies such as Andrew Dice Clay’s appearance as host (in a TV debate from the time, Michaels does an excellent job of defending his choice) to Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of the pope to criticisms about the lack of diversity in the cast and among the writing staff.
Leslie Jones defends her “Slavery” bit and pats herself on the back for being cutting edge and “brilliant.” Before we can get much in the way of counterpoint, it’s on to the next overhaul of the cast, the next controversy, the next memory courtesy of a showbiz legend.
With a running time of 82 minutes, “Live From New York!” couldn’t possibly cover all that “SNL” has meant to the culture since the mid-1970s. Maybe it shouldn’t have tried. Some of the more interesting segments here easily could have been fleshed out into a full documentary.