It's probably no surprise that the first (somewhat) widely reviewed doc out of this year's SXSW is a high profile pop culture concoction from actor and first-time feature director, James Franco, whose school project/short film about SNL regular Bill Hader grew into the longform SATURDAY NIGHT.
Eric Kohn, writing at indieWIRE, says that the film "pulls back many curtains at once":
"Given exclusive access to the frenzy of pitch sessions, rehearsals and the final broadcast that fuels each show, Franco captures the mania associated with “SNL” over the course of three decades while simultaneously demystifying it. The movie unquestionably delivers enough behind-the-scenes peeks to satisfy a basic level of curiosity about the production, but it also depicts the virtually unflagging motivation required of the show’s performers—an adrenaline mode that can’t afford to quit."
LA Weekly Film Editor Karina Longworth notes that Franco's taped introduction (he's shooting a new film with Danny Boyle in Utah) revealed that DA Pennebaker and Ricky Leacock has wanted to make a behind-the-scenes verite in the coke-fueled 1970s, but, as Franco tells it:
""Lorne said no. I guess because there was more to hide with that incredible cast."
If that sounds like a backhanded compliment to the current cast of the show, well, it's nothing compared to what Franco's put on film (actually, videotape; the only interesting thing about the way SATURDAY NIGHT is crafted is that several types of video seem to have been used, ranging from crisp broadcast quality to a choppy black-and-white image that looks like PXLvision). In bringing cameras inside the world behind Saturday Night Live, Franco reveals the production to be an airtight bubble, penetrated only by the occasional headline, seen on screen in the form of the news ticker visible outside the window of Weekend Update writer Doug Abeles' office window...
SATURDAY NIGHT is fascinating and absolutely worth seeing, but for what are probably the wrong reasons. It can't be the actor-turned-filmmaker's intention to make this specific cast or the greater SNL institution look bad (as Jolivette admitted, the filmmakers are friends with several cast members), but SATURDAY NIGHT stands as a document of a dinosaur, chugging along in oblivion, unaware and or/uncaring that the world is changing and it'll have to adapt to survive."
Writing at the IFC Blog, Stephen Saito:
"Franco appears occasionally on camera during SATURDAY NIGHT but the star of the film isn't him or Hader or any particular "SNL" star, but rather the grueling artistic process that starts anew every week. (As Will Forte says at one point, "You just kind of learn to live in a haze.") Day by day, Franco breaks down how the show's sketches are pitched on Mondays, written during an all-nighter on Tuesday, subject to a cast table read on Wednesday, fit for sets and props on Thursday and start to be rehearsed on Friday where only nine of the 50 sketches (on average) will survive. On the particular week Franco was allowed to bring cameras in, John Malkovich was the host, which only makes things more interesting.
There's an added level of intrigue for loyal viewers of the show who can recall Malkovich's December 2008 turn -- fans will greatly enjoy Seth Meyers' irresistible itch to write a skit about a hot tub-set "Dangerous Liaisons" sequel called "J'acuzzi" and writer/producer Paula Pell and Kristen Wiig evaluating fart sounds to put in a skit about Wiig's flatulent office bombshell. (Unfortunately, that's about all there is of Wiig.) Yet Franco's film also functions as a drama about the tension that exists when creativity is scheduled for a deadline; the laughs that are in "Saturday Night" are mostly incidental from the sketches being prepared."
Erik Davis at Cinematical says that it's as if Franco "just tosses the camera into the air and lets it float", instead of fitting it into some corny mold with voiceovers, music or excessing talking-heads interviews":
"Franco, as a filmmaker, does a pretty good job delivering to us stuff we've always wondered about. While there are times where he can't seem to decide what type of character he wants to play (some scenes he's in front of the camera, then he's not), it's obvious he's one of only a few people who could've made this kind of documentary since he's friends with a lot of these people, and, as such, they open up more than they probably should.
While not every SNL sketch works (and I'm sure you're more inclined to agree that, these days, there are more that don't work than those that do), there's still something to be said for the collaboration and teamwork on display here. These are people who are funny, creative and extremely committed to the work they do – perfectly willing to sleep on couches or pass out on the floor after a marathon of writing and brainstorming; collapsing into a pile of sleep-deprived insanity as only a person who's living their dreams can do."