“Live From New York,” director Bao Nguyen’s feature-length documentary about the history of “Saturday Night Live,” is less enjoyable the more you know about its subject.
For the casual fan, there’s a lot to like in the film (screening on Saturday at SPACE Gallery) – Nguyen had access to the inner workings of the show, and interviews a healthy cross-section of the multitude of performers (like Amy Poehler, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph, Jane Curtin, Will Ferrell, Garret Morris, Tina Fey and more) as well as the show’s writers (including Jim Downey, Tim Higgins and now-U.S. Senator Al Franken), various hosts, and, of course, unquestioned “SNL” leader Lorne Michaels. For an 85-minute movie, the task of summing up the significance and history of 40 years worth of television seems impossible, especially since the film never declares a coherent point of view, or focuses on any aspect of the show for too long. And especially since “Live From New York” hardly ever brings anything new to the discussion of “SNL” that any true fan of the show hasn’t heard or read already.
In a way, I’m the worst possible audience for “Live From New York.” I’m a “Saturday Night Live” fan (substitute “nerd,” “geek” or “obsessive” as you will). From the show’s first year in 1975 (I may not be young), “SNL” has simply been part of my cultural vocabulary, its catchphrases, characters and comic sensibility forming, in a very real sense, my comedy DNA. I’ve seen every “SNL” movie (yes, even “It’s Pat”), and read every possible “SNL” book – not only comprehensive histories like Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad’s excellent “Saturday Night,” and Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s eminently readable oral history (also called “Live From New York”), but every cast member autobiography I could find. Yes, even that of Jim “Goat Boy” Breuer. And, full disclosure, I’ve been the regular “SNL” reviewer at The A.V. Club for the past two seasons. With all that in mind, “Live From New York,” became, for this “SNL” enthusiast, sort of dull, paling even next to the in-house retrospectives the show itself has been producing over the years. (The NBC-made special “SNL In The 80s: Lost And Found” is an especially juicy dissection of the often disastrous period after Michaels originally left the show.)
What might have made “Live From New York” more than just rehashed hagiography would have been a more insightful examination of the show’s humor. Here, too, however, the film is content to let its subjects—in too-short snippets—say the same things they’ve said before. (Original writer Anne Beatts’ quip, “You can only be avant-garde for so long before you become garde,” might be an insight into the mellowing of the show’s once-edgy humor if I hadn’t read/heard her say it a half-dozen times over the years.) The only times the film seems on the verge of saying something about the show’s comic voice comes in a discussion of current featured player Leslie Jones’ controversial Weekend Update piece (where she imagined her love life being better under slavery), with the refreshingly no-nonsense Jones defending her bit, saying, “To think that I wrote this joke in pain, in my living room, and it made four million people laugh.” Similarly, Chris Rock’s take on the even more infamous incident when Sinéad O’Connor ripped up the picture of the Pope as a protest against child abuse in the Catholic Church is something thought-provoking and new, but that, too (along with discussions of the show’s lack of racial and gender diversity through the years, and its political satire), is too rushed.
Being a “Saturday Night Live” fan means engaging with a show that is constantly evolving, maddeningly inconsistent and all the more thrilling because of those things. It’s a live, 90-minute comedy show attempting to take on its cultural zeitgeist in real time. Simply the logistics of putting an episode of “SNL” together (something, again, whizzed by here) would make for a more thrilling film than “Live From New York” manages to be. If you’ve always wanted to know more about this unique piece of living television history, then “Live From New York” will whet your appetite for more substantial works on the subject. I’ve got a list for you.
“Live From New York” screens at SPACE Gallery on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Admission is $8, $6 for students with ID. Free to SPACE members. FMI: www.space538.org
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
Nickelodeon Cinema, Portland | patriotcineamas.com
Friday: “Escobar: Paradise Lost.” This oddball drama is about an American surfer in Colombia whose crush on a beautiful young woman is complicated in that her father is notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Awkward, sure, but the fact that Benicio Del Toro plays Escobar guarantees it won’t be boring.
Frontier, Brunswick| explorefrontier.com
Starts Tuesday: “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.” Lovely documentary about the 80-year-old Spinney, who’s been donning the 8-foot Big Bird costume on “Sesame Street” for 45 years.