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'Live from New York!' review: The history of 'SNL's' funny business

Variety
'Saturday Night Live' documentary should delight, enlighten fans.

Admittedly, cramming 40 years of "Saturday Night Live" — or rather, 40 years of American history — into 82 minutes is a daunting task, particularly as it forces a documentary to chart the symbiotic relationship between real-life fact and contemporaneous farce. But despite some judiciously chosen excerpts, Bao Nguyen's "Live From New York!" turns out to be as much a collection of sound bites as one might expect from the mainstream media that the show originally set out to satirize.

Amorphous, superficial and sporadically very funny, this film should delight if not enlighten the show's myriad fans. Though Nguyen posits a through-line, the documentary comes off as too much of an apologia to fully follow its own logic.

The film's problematic dynamic is visible from the get-go in introductory shots in which the camera reverently pans past empty seats at 30 Rock as ghost echoes of renowned one-liners ("two wild and crazy guys," etc.) reverberate. Soon afterward, creator/producer Lorne Michaels, early "SNL" scribe Ann Beatts, original cast member Chevy Chase and others describe their initially iconoclastic, quite nonreverential intent.

"Live From New York!" does a credible job of covering the show's initial impact. But Nguyen quickly steers the film into political channels, which would be fine if it didn't lose much of its comedic edge as a result.

Comments from longstanding "SNL" gag man and current Minnesota Sen. Al Franken would resonate more strongly if accompanied by at least one clip from Franken's hilarious "Me, Al Franken" self-promotions on "Weekend Update."

Michaels, drawn into controversy in clips from "Nightline" and elsewhere, increasingly asserts, "It's important we stay nonpartisan." Yet the film, even while voicing the show's shift from critic to incarnation of the Establishment, falls into its own trap and completely misses its own point when it presents "SNL's" embrace of Rudy Giuliani after 9/11 with a teary fervor that may have been excusable at the time but now feels somewhat suspect.

Frequent cutaways to former hosts and cast members keep the film moving briskly, even if the absence of the acerbic Bill Murray seems a commentary in and of itself. Though "SNL" music guru Hal Willner offers a tantalizing survey of New York's vital late-'70s music scene (in voice-over), Nguyen's documentary later largely steers clear of the subject; the raw, live spectacle of the Pope-shredding Sinead O'Connor remains uneasily underdiscussed.

Particularly puzzling is the way the film completely ignores the show's impact on the movie business, suggesting the narrowness of its concept of politics. In the end, "Live From New York!" registers as simultaneously too outsider and too insider — a perfect definition of mainstream media itself.

"Live from New York!" -- 2 stars

MPAA rating: Not rated

Running time: 1:22

Opens: Friday

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