A large portion of the last few months has already been spent feting the venerable sketch comedy series and its 40th birthday, so it’s only fitting that the city’s downtown fest add to the good cheer. The annual Robert De Niro-run celebration kicked off its 14th edition with Bao Nguyen’s Live From New York!, an affectionate and wide-ranging documentary about the importance of SNL as both a cultural and a Gotham institution. Playing to a packed house at the Beacon Theatre, this look at the long-running series was greeted with plenty of laughs and the kind of appreciation that went beyond the usual first-night giddiness.
The premiere’s crowd featured a mixed bag of Tribeca patrons, hardcore Saturday Night Live aficionados, and series alumni that, despite the doc’s reflective tone, seemed to verge more to the current side of things; cast members Leslie Jones, Beck Bennett, and Bobby Moynihan were all spotted in the audience, along with long-time writer Paula Pell. As per tradition, Tribeca co-founders De Niro and Jane Rosenthal were on hand to introduce the first film of the festival, with Rosenthal proving more reflective, billing the doc as “the story of an era.” Her partner, meanwhile, joked that his hosting duties (De Niro has headlined the show three times) only came to him because Alec Baldwin wasn’t available for the gig. The pair ended their truncated welcome speech and introduced the director by yelling out in unison, “Live from New York, it’s Bao Nguyen!”
Despite sharing a title with Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s definitive Saturday Night Live tome, LFNY! isn’t at all preoccupied with providing a detailed overview of the show’s four decades on the air. Instead, the documentary is dedicated to an easily digestible hypothesis: The long-running sketch comedy series is an institution prized for its ability to translate the spirit of the times to television entertainment, not just to make them funny. But it still plays more like a greatest-hits collection, arbitrarily zinging and zipping between wide-ranging topics. Each theme could easily make for its own film, from its legacy of political humor and response to September 11 to its longstanding diversity issues regarding the various casts. For fans of the series, there’s not much new to be found here, although the primer might inspire the casual watcher to learn more about the show and its legitimately storied history.
Nguyen benefited from plenty of access to the show, and the feature includes a bevy of historical material (the first shot is actually lifted from Dan Aykroyd’s audition for the show) alongside behind-the-scenes glimpses from the series’ 39th season. It’s also just plain packed with talking heads, including alumnus like Jane Curtin, Chevy Chase, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jimmy Fallon, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock, and Will Ferrell, as well as friends-of-SNL like Paul Simon, John Goodman and Fran Leibovitz. (Though where, pray tell, was Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis, or beloved hosts like Justin Timberlake and Tom Hanks?)
It’s unmistakably a celebratory outing, and audience ate it up as the end credits flowed into a swiftly set-up performance by Ludacris. Tribeca’s last two years have been marked by music-heavy openers, including The National documentary Mistaken For Strangers from 2013, and last year’s Nas-centric feature Time Is Illmatic, both of which naturally benefitted from post-screening performances from their subjects. Ludacris, on the other hand, wasn’t an obvious fit to follow a Saturday Night Live documentary, despite hosting the show once back in 2006.
Luda didn’t actually reference that when he took to the stage for a high-energy hit parade punctuated by frequent reminders of his various accomplishments in the entertainment world – SNL may be celebrating 40 years this year, but hey, the Atlanta-bred rapper and Furious 7 star is certainly flying high on 15. Still, he did kick off his set with an appropriate song for the affectionate feature that came before: “All I Do Is Win.” He then trotted out truncated but enthusiastic versions of his biggest hits for the rest of his 40-minute set — “Stand Up,” “Area Codes,” “Money Maker.” The chance to watch a tony film festival crowd get their groove on to “Move Bitch” may have justified the entire endeavor; it was the sort of only-in-New-York moment that the movie’s subject and De Niro & Friends’ annual event tend to exemplify year in and year out.