‘Life From New York!’: The evolution of a TV revolution

The documentary "Live From New York!" reminds viewers of show’s pioneering nature and its deep cultural impact. CREDIT: Edie Baskin/Abramorama.)

A new documentary looking back on 40 years of “Saturday Night Live” opens with Gil Scott Heron’s audio recording of “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” culminating in that 1970 song/poem’s battle cry, “The revolution will be live.” (Of course, the show’s claim to fame has always been that it is both live and televised.)

Maybe television viewers need to be reminded how revolutionary “SNL” once was, especially with the taste of the 40th season’s final insipid episodes still fresh in our mouths. “Live From New York!” certainly makes a case for the show’s groundbreaking cultural impact, and in a way that the show’s 40th-anniversary prime-time TV special this past February, for some reason, couldn’t. When the film suggests that the show may have helped tip presidential elections, it doesn’t seem hyperbolic.

At a fleet 81 minutes, the entertaining, generally affectionate, but not fawning documentary by Bao Nguyen covers more ground and more controversies — including producer Lorne Michael’s exit from and return to the show and the chronic under- representation of women and minorities in the cast — than the bloated, 3 1/2-hour TV sponge bath did.

Although this documentary, like the TV retrospective, is largely uncritical, at least “Live” has the cojones to include this famous exchange between Michaels and New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, aired during the first post-9/11 “SNL”:

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Michaels: “Can we be funny?”

Giuliani: “Why start now?”

In the context of a birthday present — which is kind of what this film is, at heart — it seems churlish to dwell on the fever chart of the show’s artistic ups and downs, though “Live” does at least acknowledge “SNL’s” well-known slumps. The film is also far funnier and includes far more extensive clips and substantive interviews with past and present stars than the special.

“Live From New York!” is a fun, not academic walk down memory lane. If frequent host Candice Bergen’s characterization of the early show as “a variety show on acid” seems a quaint evocation of the show’s bygone glory days, there are enough good times consistently evoked by this film — decade after decade — to convince even skeptics that “Saturday Night Live’s” highest highs may be yet to come.

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Three stars Unrated. Contains some adult humor. 81 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.