Tom Shales from The Washington Post has given this a good review:
'SNL': The Wonder Years
As the Storied Show Turns 30, Documentary Salutes Compelling First Chapter
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page N01
It was the middle of the 1970s. NBC lay in ruins -- sort of like now. Because NBC executives were so busy patching up cracks and potholes in the prime-time schedule, they barely noticed a freaky, feisty little show that premiered on their own network on Saturday, Oct. 11, 1975, at 11:30 p.m.
And the rest is . . . gossip.
Plus some history. For 30 years, but for the occasional year-long lull or two, "Saturday Night Live" has satisfied America's lust for ridicule, satire, topical and political humor, and sophisticated sophomoric jokes. The show's 25th anniversary was celebrated with a mammoth prime-time special, but the 30th season will be observed in slightly subtler ways, including the release of several "best of" DVD collections.
Tonight at 9, NBC will devote two hours to "Live From New York: The First Five Years of Saturday Night Live," an artful and antic documentary that mixes reminiscence from the first generation of "SNL" performers and writers with brief and sometimes iconic clips from their charmed and charming era: the "Land Shark" gobbling up giddy Gilda Radner; Dan Aykroyd posing seductively as "Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute"; and the first anchor of "Weekend Update" uttering the immortal greeting, "I'm Chevy Chase, and you're not."
How brash and bright and bold it seemed then (and looks in retrospect), as if a crowd of hooligans and hippies had managed to take over the network for 90 minutes every Saturday night. Conan O'Brien, who began writing for the show in the late '80s, says that for his generation, "SNL" reflected "the way you were funny with your friends in the lunchroom. It wasn't anything you'd seen on TV before."
And there's one of the major reasons for the success and all the hullabaloo: It wasn't anything you'd seen on TV before. In comedy clubs and from improv groups, yes, but not on television, which was still controlled by martini drinkers.
The man most responsible for creating the show and shielding it from network interference pops up frequently during the special. Lorne Michaels -- young and handsome when the show started, gray and ghostly now -- has been the executive producer for 25 of the show's 30 years, and at this point he could probably recite passages from the show's history in his sleep.
Michaels's ability to launch into instant recollections from one "SNL" era or another was once lampooned on "SNL" itself -- a cartoon made for the 25th anniversary show by the brilliant maverick Robert Smigel, creator of "The Ambiguously Gay Duo." In the beginning, Michaels was a father figure to the band of prodigious talents he assembled in 1975 -- performers who could write and writers who could perform.
Michaels met Chevy Chase, who became the show's first huge star, while waiting in line to see a Monty Python movie. Aykroyd came, as did Michaels, from Canada, our funny friend to the north. Writer Alan Zweibel's previous job was slicing meat at a delicatessen; he wrote jokes for comics in his spare time.
Unknowns all, they soon became, as later cast member Dana Carvey says, "the coolest of the cool, the Beatles of comedy." Many of the stories told about the early days by such cast members as Laraine Newman, guest hosts like Candice Bergen and writers like the great Anne Beatts (who says that in the "SNL" offices she felt "like Wendy on the island of Lost Boys") are very familiar.
They're especially so if you read the 2002 bestseller "Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live." I not only read it, I co-wrote it, with James Andrew Miller. In fact, I was asked to participate in this documentary last year, but by then I was sick to death of "Saturday Night Live."
However, watching the classy and evocative documentary -- produced and directed by Kenneth Bowser -- got me excited all over again. It re-creates the show's crazy reign as the hottest and hippest on TV, not just part of an era but an era in itself.
Sometimes Bowser's approach, coupled with the dour solemnity of Michaels, gets a tad too studious. But there are plenty of funny memories and hilarious clips. It's great fun to again see an old "Nerds" sketch with Bill Murray as Todd trying to make Gilda Radner as Lisa break up on the air. Gilda and Bill were dating at the time. Often what happened on the air reflected what was happening backstage.
Garrett Morris, who looks better in his dotage than any of them, recalls his unforgettable rendition of "Gonna Get Me a Gun and Kill All the Whiteys I See" during auditions for a prison musical. What I never knew, and maybe you didn't, is that the parody was inspired by an actual song that Morris heard on the radio in the South. It was a ******* warbler who used the "n" word where Morris put "whiteys," and she wasn't doing satire.
Conspicuous by their absences among those reminiscing are Jane Curtin and Bill Murray. It's suggested in the documentary that Curtin hated John Belushi, presumably for his hedonistic rampages and self-indulgence. But in the book "Live From New York," Curtin blames Michaels for many of Belushi's problems and indicates that Michaels is the one against whom she holds the grudge. In the documentary, Newman says of Michaels, "As time went on . . . he detached himself in ways that were very hurtful."
Others who do take part but are seen only briefly include Paul Shaffer, now David Letterman's braying sidekick on CBS, and announcer Don Pardo, who recalls that he blew the opening line on the opening show, calling the repertory company "the not for ready for prime time" players.
Dick Ebersol, who now produces the Olympics for NBC and was the executive in charge of "SNL" when it started, says that considering the bedlam that preceded the premiere, "I can see us not having made it." But they did. It's implied in the documentary that all the critics trashed the show, which is erroneous as well as insulting; The Washington Post was supportive from the beginning ("the freshest satire on commercial TV," said a critical piece that ran a month after the premiere), and ye olde New York Times came around eventually.
The documentary treads lightly on the subject of drug use among the "kids" putting on the show. Many of them trod heavily. "The cocaine was a problem," concedes Aykroyd, although he says he never particularly cared for "the powders" himself. Michaels explains his operating philosophy at the time -- that the personal drug lives of the writers and stars, when they weren't working, were their own business.
"That value system," Michaels says tersely, "turned out to be wrong."
Rebellious John Belushi's death by drugs years after leaving the show sobered everybody up.
The party was over, though partying would always be part of the exhausting process and youthful ethos.
Today, with a relatively weak cast (except for Darrell Hammond, Horatio Sanz and the talented women Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph), the show still zings relentlessly along, now and then hitting a high note such as no other TV show would even attempt.
The golden age for "SNL" may be long gone, but "Live From New York" brings it back, glorious and gleaming -- a show that reflected the zeitgeist, then became it.