Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yes, I saw James Franco's Saturday Night documentary. And now, so can you.

Since, like all the other cool people, I regularly attend the SXSW Film Festival, I was able to see James Franco's Saturday Night, a behind-the-scenes documentary about the long-running NBC sketch-comedy show, back when it screened at the 2010 edition of the Austin event.

At the time, I wrote for Variety:

Neither as inside-baseballish as one might have feared nor as revelatory as one might have hoped, Saturday Night sustains interest as a semi-anthropological view of the weeklong creative frenzy that results in a single 90-minute episode of Saturday Night Live. Best suited for fest, homevid and niche-cable venues, it may prove even more satisfying when released in a DVD package that also would enable viewers to watch the actual episode prepared during the docu. Such a double feature could be an invaluable teaching tool for would-be comic writers and performers, and producers of live telecasts.

The story behind the story: Actor (and NYU cinema studies student) James Franco was inspired to direct the docu after hosting SNL in September 2008, and approached longtime producer Lorne Michaels for permission to trace the development of an episode — showing everything from the initial pitching of sketches through construction of sets to live broadcast — in a cinema-verite format. Michaels gave his OK.

It’s worth noting, however, that in the course of an interview included in the docu, the producer casually notes that, because many of the SNL cast members are used to performing on camera, Franco shouldn’t be surprised if they perform for his camera as well. Franco can’t say he wasn’t warned. 

Time and again during Saturday Night, one gets the sense that, for all their off-the-cuff remarks and occasional admissions of insecurity, SNL headliners such as Bill Hader, Will Forte and Andy Samberg are playing to a friendly audience more than they’re opening up for an objective interviewer. Even the behind-the-scenes personnel sound less than fully spontaneous, although their comments — like those of the show’s stars — are often amusing and/or insightful. 

It’s especially interesting, albeit unsurprising, to hear that almost everyone currently involved with SNL — even, to a certain degree, Michaels — fully realizes they are competing with the audience’s nostalgic memories of favorite stars and sketches from past seasons.

For assorted reasons not connected to the quality of Franco's enterprise, his documentary -- or "docu," as we say in Variety-speak -- more or less vanished from the face of the earth after its SXSW screening. But now, at long last, Saturday Night is kinda-sorta widely available: Franco has announced it will premiere Friday on 

Is it worth watching? Let me put it like this: When asked years ago if his latest movie was worth seeing, the late, great Robert Mitchum reportedly replied, "If it's a hot night, and the theater's air-conditioned, what the hell?" In a similar fashion, I would answer: If you already have access to Hulu, and you're the least bit curious about Franco and/or Saturday Night Live -- why not?

To again quote my 2010 review:

Franco follows the production of the Dec. 6, 2008, episode with guest host John Malkovich. Many of the regulars agree that Malkovich is a great choice and a good sport. But that makes the competition among the writers and writer-performers — particularly those whose sketch proposals haven’t been greenlit lately — all the more intense...

There are a few twists along the way, particularly when a sketch about a jingle singer for a carpet dealership — which looks rather promising during development — is unceremoniously dropped after failing to sufficiently impress the audience at the final dress rehearsal. Ultimately, it’s very easy to share the cast and crew‘s palpable relief when the show concludes without apparent mishap. But the docu dutifully emphasizes that any sense of satisfaction will be short-lived: In two days, the whole process will have to begin again.

By the way: If you subscribe to Hulu Plus, you can view the original Saturday Night Live telecast here.

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