J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Tribeca ’15: Live from New York

Having featured Ornette Coleman as a musical guest, Saturday Night Live has a claim to coolness nobody can ever take away from it. Unfortunately, the show is a pale shadow of what it once was. Where did it go wrong? Do not look for an answer from Bao Nguyen’s documentary, since it refuses to acknowledge any slippage in the show’s cultural currency. Instead, expect several rounds of back-patting when Live from New York! (trailer herescreens at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival.

Live duly chronicles the show’s creation story, largely from Lorne Michaels’ perspective and spends a fair amount of time with the surviving original cast-members. However, the only skits they really analyze are Chevy Chase’s bumbling Gerald Ford impressions. Julia Louis-Dreyfus then apologizes for how bad the show was during Michaels’ five year absence—before the film hastens to celebrate Dana Carvey and Will Farrell’s impressions of the respective Presidents Bush. Eventually, it stutter-steps to the one high-point: the first show broadcast after September 11th, as remembered by Michaels and Giuliani. It shows how SNL can capture the sentiments of the City when it tries.

Frankly, Live is not merely shallow. It is a nauseating combination of self-congratulatory narcissism periodically interrupted by bouts of self-flagellation for not being more racially and ethnically inclusive over the years. Of course, they take great self-serving efforts to call out their new and improved line-up, but the obvious lack of a Hmong cast-member suggests they still plagued by extensive institutional racism.

To give you an idea of the film’s editorial focus, its de facto centerpiece sequence revolves around the twitter reaction to Leslie Jones jokes about her hypothetical sex life if she were a slave. Right now, you’re probably wondering who is Leslie Jones? To put this in perspective, the doc has nothing to say about the Coneheads, the Killer Bees, the Wild and Crazy Guys, Mr. Bill, Father Guido Sarducci, Deep Thoughts, Buckwheat, Ed Grimley, the Liar, “You Look Marvelous” Fernando, Charles Rocket dropping the F-bomb, or Elvis Costello pulling a set-list switcheroo, whereas Jones’ twitter feed represents the show’s defining moment. That’s just sad.

Live would be a disappointment as a DVD extra, but it was inexplicably chosen to open this year’s festival. The fact that it presents Brian Williams as an authority on the show’s wider significance without a trace of irony is tragically embarrassing. Yet in a way, it is so politically incorrect and deeply in denial, it is exactly the sort of docu-treatment the current incarnation of the show deserves. Not recommended, Live from New York! screens again next Friday (4/24) and the following Saturday (4/25) as part of this year’s Tribeca. Watch the 1979 show surreally featuring Coleman as musical guest and Milton Berle as host, instead.

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