Anyone looking for a really meaty documentary on a still on-the-air television show may be put off when hearing of extensive involvement of the head honchos behind said property. Even more worrying is also finding out that the 40-year portrait of the series only runs 78 minutes (despite what IMDb may tell you), which doesn’t exactly sound like the most ideal length considering that the documentary is about Saturday Night Live, a television show riddled with myriad controversies, success stories and career implosions over those 40 years. If you have a hunch that Live from New York! might play like little more than a hagiographic, superficial skip through self-serving sound-bites, then… well, you’re absolutely right.
For hardcore fans, Bao Nguyen’s film offers a couple of interesting behind-the-scenes clips, but it’s mostly built around the standard talking heads formula, and it’s an odd collection of heads at that. Some of the bigger names of the show’s last two decades are in there (albeit fleetingly), as are the likes of Dana Carvey and Chevy Case, but then you have an unusual collection of politicians, musicians and non-SNL TV personalities appearing to reiterate that the show is either an institution or a revolution, or both. When a point has to be insisted upon by so many parties but with so little insight beyond superficial superlatives, you start to doubt that any of the descriptors are actually accurate.
Still, if you’ve ever wanted Bill O’Reilly and Beastie Boy Ad-Rock in the same documentary, Nguyen sure has something for you. Meanwhile, anyone hoping for a word or two from people like Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Kristen Wiig, Eddie Murphy or Dan Aykroyd will be sorely disappointed. There’s a chance a few of those might have offered some more candid titbits than talking heads like Jimmy Fallon, though credit must be given to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who badmouths the quality of her time on the show, and Chris Rock, who sides with musician Sinéad O’Connor when her live protest against the Pope comes up.
Nguyen does seem interested in some of the controversies and criticisms that have plagued the show over the years (e.g. institutionalised racism and sexism), but that interest consists of just repeating over and over that the criticism exists, with little to no material exploring or challenging why those barriers were there or why they still are — just mention diversity’s a problem and then play a clip of the cast cheekily addressing the topic on air, as though that’s an actual deconstruction. It’s a projection of curiosity disguising actual incuriosity, and the more it happens as the doc goes on, the less harmless the lack of bite seems. The documentary suggests that the makers of Saturday Night Live, in all likelihood, probably don’t have contempt for their audience. It’s harder to say that’s the case for the team behind Live from New York!
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently a contributing editor at PopOptiq, a writer for VODzilla.co, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.