Novice director Bao Nguyen’s 82-minute documentary Live From New York! lays the groundwork for 40 years and 800 episodes of Saturday Night Live being “a living, breathing time capsule” of American politics and pop culture. Although the subject of the flick is a nervy, electric, often sloppy show that was once a mold-breaker, breeding ground for great comic talents, and a hotbed of sex and social change, Live From New York! is a tame, light, skin deep, fuddy-duddy kind of thing. Nguyen combines the standard mix of archival clips with overly polite talking heads including Tina Fey, Chris Rock, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Poehler, Al Franken, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Brian Williams (seriously?), Dana Carvey, Al Gore, John Goodman, Paul Simon, Bill O’Reilly and, inexplicably, way too much of Jimmy Fallon. (Eddie Murphy and Bill Murray are among the missing.)
The movie snaps to life when the show’s creator Lorne Michaels, its writing staff, and performers are shown scrambling to come up with a response to ground-shifting events like the 9-11 attacks. In other clips, Sinead O’Connor declares herself a victim of childhood abuse, shreds a photo of the pope, calls out the Catholic Church as “the real enemy,” and visibly trembles. (Turns out, as Chris Rock points out, she was vilified but absolutely right). Tina Fey and Amy Poehler impersonate Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton and Darrell Hammond and Will Ferrell tackle Al Gore and George Bush; public perception and, maybe, election results change because of them. That’s live television at its best.
The movie, which begins with rapid-fire news clips accompanied by Gil Scott Heron’s epic “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” promises to be about something much bigger but the nearest it gets to fulfilling that promise is to highlight the show’s lack of diversity. Original cast member Garrett Morris talks about being sidelined for an entire year. More recently, Scandal star Kerry Washington gets satirically called on to play Michelle Obama and Oprah in the same sketch — a comment on the show’s then lack of a single black female cast member. Writer Leslie Jones kills in a ballsy self-written sketch attacking slavery, only to be skewered by black and female viewers and critics. Good stuff. The movie entertains, sure, but the real story behind the puff stuff is way more complicated. **