(CNN) - Drawing from a trove of diaries and audiotapes, "Love, Gilda" is a bittersweet, nostalgic ode to Gilda Radner, one of "Saturday Night Live's" original Not Ready for Primetime Players, who died far too young. Deeply personal, this first-rate CNN Films documentary -- making a pit stop in theaters before its date with primetime -- also has something to say about the male-dominated world of comedy that Radner inhabited.
Director Lisa D'Apolito forges a contemporary connection in part by bringing those who came after Radner -- including "SNL's" Bill Hader, Cecily Strong and Amy Poehler -- into the mix, and they act as if they've been made privy to the Ark of the Covenant while perusing Radner's innermost thoughts.
That begins with a trip through her childhood, and Radner being overweight and teased. "Love, Gilda" is at its best when hearing from those who were close to Radner, augmented by her own warmly narrated reminiscences about her experiences, in much the way HBO's recent Robin Williams documentary was told heavily in his voice.
The most fascinating tidbits come from the very early stages of Radner's career, from footage in a production of "Godspell" to her casting in Second City and the National Lampoon Radio Show -- a pipeline, later, into "Saturday Night Live." Dominated by a boisterous collection of guys -- most of whom went on to fame, and several of whom Radner dated -- she was often "the girl" in those sketches, but such an appealing presence that "SNL" patriarch Lorne Michaels made her the first player drafted in assembling his original all-star team.
"She would walk into the room, and all the energy would go to her," recalls Martin Short, one of her many boyfriends before she was cast in Second City.
Those incandescent qualities and inherent likability are evident in the nicely curated clips presented, including signature characters like Lisa Loopner and Rosanne Rosannadanna.
They also shine through, though, during the material about Radner's personal life -- including her ruminations about the consequences of fame ("Being famous is almost as bad for dating as being funny"), her whirlwind romance with Gene Wilder and finally grappling with her diagnosis of ovarian cancer.
In a genuinely touching moment, Radner is shown guest starring on "It's Garry Shandling's Show" and discussing her illness, drawing laughs by casting glances directly at the camera, a bit of fourth-wall-breaking that was supposed to be the exclusive privilege of the program's star.
Radner dealt with cancer with enviable grace -- addressing those feelings in her book, "It's Always Something," an autobiography that was published the year she died in 1989.
For those who remember watching Radner during those halcyon days on "SNL," or those whose memories are confined largely to clips, "Love, Gilda" is a lovingly rendered reminder that she was, indeed, something.
"Love, Gilda" opens theatrically in the U.S. on Sept. 21. CNN Films is part of CNN.
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