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PopEntertainment.com > Reviews > TV on DVD Reviews > Saturday Night Live - 25 Years of Music

 

Saturday Night Live

25 Years of Music (Lion's Gate-2003)

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Copyright ©2005   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 26, 2005.

When NBC’s Saturday Night Live debuted in 1975, it wasn’t just funny – it was exciting. To begin with, it was live, and despite the fact that it depended almost entirely on sketch comedy, an anything-can-happen current gushed from the screen like Niagara Falls. The vibe was so fresh and different, the sensibility so much more than mere hip, that its young audience adopted it and took it home as if it were a mischievous puppy.

At least at first, the sketch comedy was biting and unexpected – and the show’s music followed suit, with a mix of musical guests that ranged from the fringe element to the impressively unpredictable. Even it’s theme song, sophisticated and sax fueled, is vibrant and edgy and pulse-quickening, the musical equivalent of being alive from New York.

The show’s history is generally well known after its thirty-plus-year run: it experienced a roller-coaster ride of good and bad and awful; but ultimately, it took on the identity of a rag-tag underdog, a survivor. It was good in that it never gave up, even when everyone expected it to; bad in that it could get lazy or uninspired and be completely unapologetic about it.

What’s worse, SNL sunk its ass into the sofa cushion as television caught up with its sensibility. Rather than fight for its market share, it became lazy and often indifferent, depending on a tiresome catchphrase or a much-used running gag to keep it going, as MAD TV roared up from behind.

Currently, what’s missing more than anything is the spontaneity of the original sense of we-do-what-we-want.  For instance, if in 1975, Broderick Crawford hosted just because it was a funny idea, in 2005, Ashlee Simpson is a musical guest not because it is a funny idea but because she has an album to promote.

Ashlee Simpson aside, you can almost always count on interesting musical choices, and that music is actually performed live. Here, celebrating a sampling of its first twenty-five years of musical guests, is a razzle-dazzle assortment. For a show that does not pretend to appeal to the masses, there seems to be a little bit of everything for everybody (or almost everybody). Of course, we are spared much (does anyone remember the Ice Cubes, or, for that matter, Mary MacGregor?)

What’s more, you get a near-definitive history of American popular music during the last quarter of the 20th century, from The Grateful Dead and Elvis Costello (who, in the spirit of live television, literally stops the music and decides to change songs midstream, in a classic moment) to the lesser, more expiration-date-oriented excitement of The Backstreet Boys and Garth Brooks. Plus, you get to see Mick Jagger evolve (or devolve) decade by decade, as he makes both musical and comedic appearances every ten years or so.

When Paul Simon hosted the second show of the series, he gave SNL the hip credibility it needed to surge ahead musically (yes, in 1975, Simon was still a hitmaker). He reunited with former partner Art Garfunkel (singing their 1969 classic, “The Boxer”) and the talent floodgates immediately opened. We get to revisit this wonderful performance, as well as Simon singing “Still Crazy After All These Years” in a turkey suit (hilarious then, just nostalgic now).

To see Billy Joel, in his brash confidence and youthful brilliance, perform “Only the Good Die Young” live, you know that history is being made before it is made. And when comedy cross-pollinates with the music, you are there: John Belushi doing Beethoven doing Ray Charles; John Belushi doing Joe Cocker with Joe Cocker; even Bill Murray as Nick Winters, the lounge singer, singing, “Star Wars/Nothing but Star Wars…”

Comedy clips are included on the DVD, since they are so integral to the music performed. Most classically, producer Lorne Michaels offers The Beatles a check for $3,000 if they agree to reunite on SNL (he says, “If you want to give Ringo less, that’s up to you.”). We laughed then because it was hilarious and we laugh now because it strikes our sentimental need, but we also wonder if Lennon and McCartney (who reportedly watched the sketch from Lennon’s apartment in the Dakota) would take Michaels up on his offer. Talk about live spontaneity. And what can be more musically comedic (SNL style) than “King Tut,” performed by the first stand-up comedian to reach rock-and-roll adulation, Steve Martin.

The excitement of the first five years had very much to do with music: Gilda Radner as punk rocker Candy Slice was as funny as it was memorably musical, and Andy Kaufman is sealed in our cultural consciousness forever, just by channeling Elvis (22 million viewers can’t be wrong).

When the original cast (and producer) left the series in 1980, SNL never quite revived its Event status for musical guests. Not that The Talking Heads, Queen and Sting were anything to sneeze at, but the novelty most certainly wears off by the mid-80s (plus, the DVD seems to steer clear of the years 1980-1984, when the show all but crashes and burns). Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy perform as Frank Sinatra and Stevie Wonder, and Martin Short (as Ed Grimley) dances with Tina Turner, but no one will step forward and say that appearances by The Bangles and The GoGos constitute appointment television.

By the 1990s, the series scoops up the musical ball once more, as rock and roll catches up with SNL’s original brand of youthful cynicism. R.E.M. rightfully opens the decade with “Losing My Religion,” while Sinead O’ Connor stirs a controversy by ripping up a photo of the Pope. Nirvana (“Rape Me”) makes an appearance here, as well as the über-slacker Beck (“Where It’s At”) and the slacker-ettes Alanis Morissette (“Hand In My Pocket”) and Jewel (“Who Will Save Your Soul”).

For pure cheese value, you can enjoy The Spice Girls (“Wannabe”) and even Madonna (“Fever”), but you’ll be surprised at how good Hanson (“MMMBop”) and Ricky Martin (“Livin’ La Vida Loca”) actually sound and entertain live. In fact, don’t leave the party until you’ve heard En Vogue perform “Free Your Mind.”

Comedy perks up again during the 90s, as Chris Farley interviews Paul McCartney (“Mmmm-member The Beatles? That was awesome.”), Adam Sandler leads the audience (including McCartney) in song, and Phil Hartman makes us howl at just about anything he does. 

The five-disk DVD is rich in performance and perfect for a party. Hosted by SNL alumni both great (Martin Short, Cheri Oteri) and near-great (Chevy Chase, Jay Mohr), you’ll easily be reminded that, although you may not think of it often, this institution was – and is – a small but memorable part of your musical life.

Ron Sklar

Copyright ©2005   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: December 26, 2005.