Published Jun 15, 2015A new Saturday Night Live retrospective — not quite the "documentary" it aspires to be — entitled Live From New York! was to be expected, given SNL's 40th anniversary show earlier this year. Like the birthday bonanza of famous faces that took place earlier this year on NBC, the documentary seems a little unsure of its purpose — unless of course it's to be nothing more than promotional material while jumping through all the hoops necessary to appearing to be a documentary.
It's nevertheless interesting to chart the many metamorphoses SNL has gone through in the past 40 years. What started off as a pillar of counter-culture in the United States — expressed most obviously in its political material and musical guests — has come to both reflect pop culture and exist as one of its biggest purveyors worldwide. Normally such a transformation in any institution would have most patrons crying "sell out." Somehow SNL has managed to stay relevant, with the times, and — despite all modifications — loyal to its roots. It's something Live From New York! never tires of pointing out, however true it may be.
The film began with a somewhat token montage of grainy archive footage growing modern. New York pedestrians mucking about in the '70s, candid photographs of the original cast, cherished moments and growing pains, all rushing towards the present day in a cacophony of activity and sound that could be contributed as suitably to New York as it could to a dandelion whipping through a war zone. Curiously, the entire vibrant mosaic was set to the celebrated Gil Scott-Heron poem "The revolution will not be televised." While the message appears counterintuitive, it also seemed — regrettably — somewhat flippant.
The majority of the film focuses on SNL's coverage and influence of politics in the United States. From Chevy Chase's debut on Weekend Update to Tina Fey's sensational take on Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, the film leaves no stone, impersonation or political appearance unturned. It really is thrilling to see Dana Carvey's George Bush Sr. impression again. That political pundits, publicists and PR experts still watch SNL in order to gauge the public perception of high ranking officials is nothing to shake a stick at. Live From New York! explores SNL's political history in a way that perfectly encapsulates the amount of cultural and political clout the program has earned itself.
Live From New York! also attempts to take a more critical look at the institution's contributions or lack thereof to the social issues it often attempts to champion. The lack of racial diversity in certain casts receives a fair amount of attention early on, with a brief analysis of the character limitations forced upon cast member Garrett Morris. The sole black member of the original cast was dissuaded from playing characters like doctors because he was black. The film also studied Leslie Jones's recent and controversial take on black femininity and beauty, though the point seemed to be more about SNL's willingness to engage in controversy than it was about the racial implications themselves.
The film also highlights Jane Curtin's experience as a female member of the original cast and juxtaposes it with the likes of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. The film ends up leaning towards a "look what we built" perspective in both cases, citing the creative fruition of Eddie Murphy, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and others as proof of progress and a progressive institution. While there is doubtlessly a lot of truth to be found in that perspective, the way in which SNL arises from all controversy in either a squeaky clean or "c'est la vie" manner makes the film come off as more of a promotional spectacle at times than a documentary.
Live From New York! is fun, at times even poignant, but with relatively little behind the scenes footage or in depth inquiry, it's a little too "greatest hits" in execution to live up to its documentary status.
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