Warner Bros. // 1980 // 90 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // November 28th, 2009
"It's the Judy Miller Show!"
The original cast of Saturday Night Live, known collectively as the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players," had their share of breakout stars. Chevy Chase hit it big the first season and abandoned the show for Hollywood early in the second. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd followed the same siren call, as did Bill Murray. All of them went on to hugely successful movie careers, starting the template many of the show's later cast members followed -- or at least tried to. For the most part, the original cast's female members didn't have the same kind of success as their male counterparts. Jane Curtin never pursued the Hollywood dream, choosing instead to stay on the small screen. Laraine Newman, perpetually overshadowed on SNL fell out of the public eye, though she continued to work in movies and television.
Gilda Radner, however, was different. From the earliest days on Saturday Night, she made a big impression. Her endless stable of characters and knack for physical comedy made her perhaps the show's most memorable female cast member. As much as we look back on her with fondness now, it's nothing compared to the public fervor that surrounded her in the late '70s, so much so that NBC president Fred Silverman offered her a prime time variety show in '79. Radner turned down the TV show, instead turning her attention to Broadway. She took her most popular characters, mixed in some musical numbers and guest appearances by fellow SNL pals Don Novello and Paul Shaffer, and created her own one-woman show, "Gilda Radner: Live from New York." The show was such a big hit that it was released on record, as well as in movie theaters as Gilda Live!, from a performance filmed at the Winter Garden Theater in New York, and directed by Mike Nichols.
Unfortunately, Gilda Live! did not share the success of the live stage show. The movie suffered from a tepid reponse by critics and the public. Until now, the movie has been available only on VHS, but thanks to Warner Archive's disc on demand service, Radner fans can finally own it on DVD.
Radner's stage show was composed mostly of character sketches, interspersed by appearances by Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci. The show begins and ends with Radner as herself, sharing childhood memories about the theater and comedy. The rest of the time she is in character. Make that characters. Like a rock band playing their greatest hits, Radner trots out just about every major character she played on SNL. Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Judy Miller, Lisa Loopner, Nadia Komenich, Rhonda Weiss, Candy Slice. They're all here (sorry Baba Wawa fans). Some of the sketches are almost exactly as they appeared on Saturday Night Live. Hyperactive Brownie Judy Miller turning her bedroom into "The Judy Miller Show," for instance, seems like a beat-for-beat reproduction. Other material, like Lisa Loopner's heartfelt rendition of "The Way We Were" debuted on stage. Whatever she does, though, the audience eats it up. They love her. It's hard not to love Gilda Radner, but a full thirty years later her, cultural relevance has faded.
The show relies heavily on audience excitement about seeing her do these characters live. Besides being removed from the live experience by virtue of this being a movie, modern viewers don't need a live show to see Radner do her thing. They can watch her on various SNL DVDs any time they want. Funny as she is on stage, it's hard not to miss the other cast members who helped make her such a big star. Emily Litella misunderstanding what someone says isn't as funny without Jane Curtin there to point out the mistake, or for Litella to call a bitch. Lisa Loopner is one of the great SNL characters, but without Bill Murray as Todd, the magic is diminished. The difficulty of translating these characters from ensemble pieces to solo performance is probably why Gilda Live! has so many songs in it. Radner's singing ability is even more impressive considering she does it as so many different characters. From drug-addled punk rocker Candy Slice's tribute to Mick Jagger to former sixties girl-group headliner Rhonda Weiss's protest song about the FDA banning saccharine, Live! is full of varied, funny musical numbers.
The song-and-dance nature of the show also lets Radner take advantage of the censorship-free world of Broadway. The movie is rated R, and you find out why during the opening number, "Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals." Compared to the stage work of 99.9 percent of stand-up comedians, though, the bulk of the show is tame. Radner seems to save the foul language for her non-character pieces. With the exception of some mock-humping of a stuffed animal in the Judy Miller sketch and Emily Litella going a bit blue, Radner's characters are as sanitized as they appear on TV.
Radner's costume changes between sketches are lightning quick (as shown by the backstage footage Nichols weaves into the film), but the audience is never kept waiting thanks to Novello's Father Guido Sarducci, whose contributions to the show are half-justified by some story about accompanying the world's oldest cardinal on a lecture tour. Novello's handful of appearances are, to me, the highlights of the movie. As much as I love and respect Radner, I've always been a Sarducci fan. He doesn't disappoint here. One of his monologues -- about how we literally pay for our sins -- is repeated from SNL, but the others were new to me. In his first appearance, he gives the slide lecture the snoozing cardinal was supposed to. It's entirely in Italian, but thanks to Novello's delivery and handy visual aids, its meaning is clear. As with a lot of the show's material, the topical humor might leave modern viewers scratching their heads, but then again, who doesn't love a good Jimmy Carter joke?
Also backing up Radner is Paul Shaffer, who acts as bandleader during the songs, as well as performing as Don Kirschner and the college dean who introduces commencement speaker Roseanne Roseannadanna. He never hogs the spotlight, but like so many things he's done over the years, the show wouldn't be the same without him. Also helping in the musical department are three backing singers known collectively as Rouge.
For a thirty-year-old concert film, Gilda Live! looks good. It's got a soft, warm film look that captures that late-'70s feeling, and the print is mostly scratch free. The soundtrack is in serviceable mono. Considering how much music is in the show, stereo would have been nice, but that's a minor nitpick. A much bigger problem with Gilda Live! is that the disc is as barebones as you can get. Warner Archive is paving new territory by offering rare titles on demand, but that doesn't excuse the lackluster presentation. Forget extras, there isn't even a DVD menu. When you pop in the disc your option is "Play Movie." No mention of what the movie is -- just "Play Movie." There are chapter stops, which is a plus, although they are unceremoniously plopped in every ten minutes, which means they tend to hit in the middle of songs and sketches. I'm sure Radner fans would rather have this movie on DVD in this form than not at all, but the cookie cutter pressing is disappointing.
As a comedy special, Gilda Live! is a mixed bag. Radner's enthusiasm and charm are infectious, and Novello and Shaffer are as impressive a back-up team as you could ask for, but removed from the early-SNL buzz, it's hard to get too excited about a celebration of out-of-date characters -- especially when you can see all of those characters in their original context on complete season Saturday Night Live collections.
Not guilty, but also not worth a standing ovation.
Review content copyright © 2009 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated R