‘Live from New York!’
Director: Bao Nguyen
2 (out of 5) Globes
The 40-year history of “Saturday Night Live” is a cottage industry unto itself, fueling untold books and articles. That makes an 80-minute, largely expository documentary far from special or even particularly useful. In fact it’s a shock that “Live from New York!” is short as it is — about as long as an episode, without commercials — considering all the hills and valleys and the plethora of players, many of them with unique personality flaws. It’s almost more educational to see what doesn’t make Bao Nguyen’s doc, from the tragic story of Charles Rockett’s f-bomb deployment to Chevy Chase pissing off the 1986 cast with AIDS jokes to the very existence of G.E. Smith.
Not that “Live from New York!” doesn’t have any perspective. Structured around talking points more than a linear timeline, its main points of obsession are the show as a political instrument of varying passion, from belittling (or inadvertently coddling) pols — it’s hard to imagine today’s show celebrating the death of a Fransisco Franco, as Chase once did on Weekend Update —to being a cheerleader, though more often not, for diversity. The latter is the film’s biggest carp, with cast members and general New Yorkers (including Fran Lebovitz, later seen being parodied by chameleon Fred Armison) railing against the lack of women and the general boy’s atmosphere. At the same time, it takes a palace guard position, tempering such criticisms by pointing out that longtime showrunner Lorne Michaels at least meant well, and did include a number of funny ladies in the original cast. Moreover, it add, the show has become of late a bastion for female comics, even if it only recently found a black female, Leslie Jones, to join a line-up often overstuffed with white dudes.
That tact — critique then defend — runs through the film, as it can’t be too scathing less it upset one of the talking heads, most notably Chevy Chase. (That said, the number of participants is pretty low; it’s not only such obvious names like Eddie Murphy, Dennis Miller and the far gone Victoria Jackson who are AWOL.) It only superficially engages with Jones’ controversial Weekend Update bit, in which she took on slavery by talking about how great she’d have been on a plantation. It’s a daringly funny bit intended to start a conversation; instead the film only lets it turn into a skirmish between Jones and some humorless killjoys, missing the opportunity to address a growing trend towards sieging upon any comedy that offends anyone. It’s symptomatic of a film with little screentime and only minimal engagement, which exists largely to defend an institution, usually from complaints it itself brings up.