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'Live From New York!' Is A Shrugworthy Portrait Of SNL

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 12, 2015 2:25PM

2015_6_12SNLdocumentary.jpg During the final moments of Live from New York!, Bao Nguyen's new documentary about Saturday Night Live, Lorne Michaels is asked if he ever thinks about his show's effect on television. "I think anybody who's in comedy who talks seriously for more than two or three minutes and isn't funny probably shouldn't be listened to," he replies. "I think the work speaks for us."

And yet there is arguably no television program that has been scrutinized, discussed, debated, and reminisced about more frequently than SNL. (Especially by its participants, cast and crew — to date there are at least two different oral histories out there.) SNL clip shows and compilation videos seem to have sprouted up like mushrooms at least as far back as its 25th anniversary.

So does the world really need a documentary about SNL? The answer is yes. Such a groundbreaking and consistently influential program deserves one. But Live from New York! fails to do justice to its subject. Shapeless and meandering, it's content to hop from theme to theme while barely bothering to sketch in a coherent historical outline. And at only 81 minutes long, it's little more than a skin-deep treatment to boot. Such inconvenient truths as the Jean Doumanian/Dick Ebersol years, backstage acrimony and the deaths of several high-profile cast members are glossed over or ignored entirely. Of course, there are plenty of hilarious clips. But they're all chopped into 20-second gag lines that aren't particularly satisfying. Even worse, all those vintage clips have been mutilated by "tilt and scan," zooming and cropping the original image in a way that fills today's widescreen TVs but also cuts off people's heads (and Roseanna Roseannadanna's hair).

But above all Live from New York! suffers from what plagues so many pop culture-related documentaries: a nonstop parade of celebrity talking heads gushing about how cool / amazing / important the show is while failing to offer any real insight or cover new ground. While it's fun to watch Al Gore discuss Darrell Hammond's impression of him, or Candice Bergen talk about what it was like as a host, a documentary shouldn't function as a puff piece. It's a shame, because buried inside are a few moments that point to a much more interesting approach. When Leslie Jones reacts to the fallout from her infamous slavery monologue on "Weekend Update," her take is both fresh and revealing and reminds us why she's one of our favorites in the current cast. Throughout, Nguyen uses "behind the scenes" footage as a sort of connective tissue, but doesn't fully exploit its possibilities; a documentary tracing what happens during a typical week on SNL, from writing sessions and the first table read through costuming, rehearsal, and airing, would definitely be more illuminating than what we get here.

Our conclusion? You'll be much more satisfied if you stay home and re-watch the recent 40th anniversary special. After all, to quote Lorne Michaels, "I think the work speaks for us."

Live from New York! Directed by Bao Nguyen. No MPAA rating. 81 mins.

Opens Friday, June 15 at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema in Chicago. Check the film's website for additional theater locations in your area.