Tribeca Film Festival Review: Live from New York!, by Rudie Obias
Kicking off the Tribeca Film Festival 2015 is Live From New York!, a documentary on the history and pop culture relevance of Saturday Night Live over the last 40 years. The comedy sketch TV show is an institution in American pop culture but more so in New York City, where it’s produced. While the Tribeca Film Festival is quickly becoming another strong institution in New York City – the festival started in 2002 in the wake of 9/11 – Live From New York! almost gives the new film festival some credibility and much like Saturday Night Live, both are really self-serving, which is a particular New York trait.
Of course, my comments are coming from a place of love and admiration. I do love SNL and NYC but if you hold a mirror to yourself, you better come up with something that’s interesting, reflective, and critical. While Live From New York! does fulfill the first two in spades, I’m afraid it comes up short taking a look at the bumps and bruises – and general ugliness – of the last 40 years of Saturday Night Live.
The film starts off with screen tests of the original cast during their audition for the new variety show in 1975. We see how far the show has come over the last 40 years, as old and new cast members and hosts reflect on the show’s longevity. The documentary takes a look at the things the show has gotten right over the years, including its place in pop culture, in women’s rights, and, overall, in the diversity of its cast over the years. It even addresses recent criticisms of current cast member Leslie Jones’ controversial Weekend Update segment. The documentary fails in examining the dark times of the show, namely between 1980 and 1985 when producer Lorne Michaels left the show.
While there are some nods to Eddie Murphy and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it doesn’t go into great detail on the circumstances of Michaels’ exit or return. Live From New York! presents itself as an oral history of Saturday Night Live with exclusive interviews of cast members, writers, producers, and crew. Then why didn’t it shed some sort of a light over this time period? Instead, the documentary pays lip service to the Dick Ebersol era. Although this is a relatively short time in SNL history, it would’ve been nice to see something more about it in, I don’t know, a documentary about Saturday Night Live.
Much of Live From New York! plays like an NBC special on SNL and maybe that’s where it should’ve been in the first place, as a supplement to the SNL 40 TV special, which aired in February. The documentary is well meaning but it just feels too much like a greatest hits special than actually trying to go in-depth with why the show has lasted for 40 years and why it’s still a big part of the American pop culture and political zeitgeist. Live From New York! is well-worn territory but sometimes it’s good to take a stroll down memory lane, especially for a 40 year anniversary. But just don’t expect too much new information during that long and leisurely stroll through Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.