Judge Victor Valdivia has an idea to make a movie that blends old '40s musicals with old '80s hardcore porn. Strangely, he has found no takers.
Our review of New York, New York (Blu-ray), published July 2nd, 2011, is also available.
A love story is like a song. It's beautiful while it lasts.
New York, New York is Martin Scorsese's grand attempt at mixing the gritty improvisation of John Cassavetes with the lush musical extravaganzas of Stanley Donen. The result is a film that while full of great performances, beautiful visuals, and impressive music, ultimately winds up being less than the sum of its parts.
Facts of the Case
In New York City in 1945, Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver) is a saxophone player whose enormous talent is matched by his equally sizable arrogance and selfishness. Then, on the last day of World War II, he meets singer Francine Evans (Liza Minelli, Cabaret) and realizes that he's just met someone whose talent, ambition, and toughness match his own. Over the next ten years, they fall in love, get married, have a child, and go through many ups and downs, as they try to keep their relationship together while slowly building their careers to stardom.
The year 1977 was a watershed in American film. George Lucas released Star Wars, which became a massive blockbuster and changed the industry's perception of success. Also released that year was Martin Scorsese's New York, New York, which changed the industry's perception as well, except in a totally different way. It's important to note that at that point, a film like New York, New York rather than Star Wars would have been considered a shoo-in for blockbuster status: character-driven, experimental, dialogue-heavy, and, more than anything, the ambitious vision of a talented, driven director. At the time, it seemed to be the culmination of the wave of dark, downbeat '70s films that included The Godfather, The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show, and Straw Dogs.
In terms of pure ambition, New York, New York has those films beat hands down. Scorsese, hot off the critically acclaimed hat trick of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver, had been given carte blanche to do whatever he wished. His pet project was massively complicated: a blending of cinema verité mixed with, of all things, elaborate MGM-style musical numbers. What's more, Scorsese felt cocky enough to begin shooting the film without a finished screenplay. Confident after the awards and critical adulation of his previous three films, Scorsese felt sure he had more than enough talent to pull off even a project of this magnitude.
At times, New York, New York is dazzling. The musical numbers are phenomenal. Starting out as simple bandstand performances, they get progressively more elaborate until the climactic "Happy Endings," a colossal sequence built around Francine as her career takes off that is not only beautifully choreographed and shot, but also serves as a brilliant metaphor for her life. Furthermore, the first scene, which introduces Jimmy and Francine in a nightclub, is brilliant. As the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra plays on a bandstand, to a massive audience dancing and celebrating the end of World War II, Jimmy works the room, hustling every woman with the same pickup line ("I met you at a party somewhere"). That's until he sees Francine in a USO uniform and realizes that she, in her quiet thoughtfulness, is so much different than anyone else there. He then spends a good five minutes hitting on her mercilessly with every trick in the book, while she calmly and quietly refuses his every advance. It's a perfectly realized scene in that, in just a few minutes, both characters are fully outlined. We see how Jimmy's narcissistic selfishness masks a painful sensitivity, and how Francine uses prim sweetness to hide her tough inner core.
But as the film progresses, and Jimmy and Francine join together to blend their talents and their lives, it begins to fall into a repetitive structure. A musical number is performed, and then Jimmy says or does something hurtful and self-centered, followed by Francine forgiving him after he reveals his feelings. The structure is clearly the result of an incomplete script and a director essentially making it up as he goes along. Consequently, the story ambles aimlessly from scene to scene and takes a prolonged route to get to a resolution that the audience has seen coming almost from the beginning. Once we get the point (very early) that no matter what situation Jimmy is put in, he will always choose to say and do the most self-destructive thing possible, the movie just keeps hammering it home over and over again. What begins as a finely nuanced character becomes painfully predictable and even self-parodic by the end. In fact, what's most surprising is that while Scorsese proved adept at filming musical numbers, he badly mishandled the improvisational dialogue that was previously his strength. Too many scenes go on longer than necessary, with the actors repeating lines of dialogue, or reiterating a scene's point over and over.
The sloppy structure also means that there are great characters and subplots that appear, and are then suddenly abandoned for no good reason. Frankie Harte, the bandleader who hires Jimmy and Francine for his band, is a great, vivid character. Wonderfully portrayed by Georgie Auld (who also played De Niro's sax solos), he's a hard-nosed, no-nonsense tough guy who will cheerfully insult his most faithful musicians at the drop of a hat. But once he gets a couple of good scenes, he simply disappears and never returns. Similarly, there is a tantalizing scene, set in a black jazz club that Jimmy plays at regularly, that suggests that Jimmy, in addition to neglecting Francine to go out and jam with his friends, has also discovered cocaine. That could have led the story in any number of interesting directions. Unfortunately, the idea is dropped and is never mentioned again.
Ultimately, at nearly 3 hours, New York, New York is simply too long and too unfocused to work. The film is full of great performances, spiky bits of dialogue, fantastic visuals, and some wonderful songs. But it doesn't hang together well as a complete story, because it frequently repeats themes and ideas expressed previously, and because it wanders along various story threads that are either suddenly cut short or stretched out way too long.
To be fair, given the film's chaotic production, there was probably no way it was ever going to come together seamlessly. Scorsese, deep in the throes of self-indulgent hubris and feeling the pressure to compensate for an unfinished script, would show up regularly on the set full of dozens of elaborate ideas he had never discussed with any of his cast or crew. Such wild improvisations by a director are hard enough on a low-budget independent film, but on a vast musical extravaganza full of dozens of extras, sets, costumes, and crew members, the resulting disorganization was disastrous.
Not surprisingly, Scorsese's indecisiveness pushed the film massively over budget and behind schedule. And when it was finally released, it was a critical and commercial disaster, especially when compared with the more audience-friendly Star Wars. The collapse of New York, New York, coupled with the failure of William Friedkin's Sorcerer earlier that year (another big-budget director-driven extravagance), made Hollywood decide once and for all that the era of challenging, auteur-driven films was over for good, to be replaced by the era of sci-fi and action blockbusters. Not coincidentally, after New York, New York, Scorsese would not direct again for three years, and then relenting to do Raging Bull only under the condition that it would be the last film he would ever make. Happily he changed his mind, and would go on to make some great films afterwards, but such was his state of mind after this film that he was convinced his career was over for good. Many years later, far away from the feverish expectations and intense backlash of that time, it's easy to admire the film's many merits, but it's also easy to see that it's a textbook definition of "noble failure."
New York, New York was originally released on DVD in 2005, in a single-disc version. The transfer and sound mix from that disc are both identical to this one. The film was shot in 1:66:1 widescreen, and the transfer is still non-anamorphic, for some reason. Colors are sharp, and there is little grain. The film comes with a 5.1 English mix. It's not especially bass-heavy, since most of the film is dialogue-centered, and even the big musical numbers are not very loud, but it's a crisp, clear, reasonably loud mix for a film from 1977. The film's original mono mix is included as well.
All of the extras from the '05 version have been ported over to this one, along with a second disc full of more. Taken from that DVD is the audio commentary with Scorsese and film critic Carrie Rickey. Neither of them talks much, and the commentary is full of long gaps. Scorsese mentions his ideas and inspirations for the film but mostly spends his time reeling off an enormous list of the movie musicals he used as models for this film, and discussing their plots and shooting histories in detail. Hardcore musical buffs will enjoy, while others will be baffled and somewhat bored. Rickey actually does comment on the film and provides some information on the production, but she frequently merely describes what's happening onscreen without giving any additional facts. It's the one substandard extra on the disc.
Also taken from the '05 DVD is Scorsese's introduction (5:35), in which he outlines what his plan for the film was, how he wanted to shoot it, and how he views the finished results. Scorsese is surprisingly frank in admitting that he should have worked more on the script before shooting and that, to this day, he's still not sure the ambitious fusion he attempted actually worked. This introduction is in fact far more revealing than the commentary, and is definitely the real heart of this disc. In addition, Disc One has deleted scenes (19:11). Since the script was never actually completed, these are not scenes cut out to save time but rather alternate takes with slightly differing improvisations, mostly by De Niro and Minelli. Nothing revelatory or notable here, although a couple of takes do add some much needed humor. The film's theatrical trailer (3:25), teaser trailer (2:05), and poster and photo galleries round out the disc.
The new extras are on Disc Two. The most significant is "The New York, New York Stories," an extended featurette split over two parts, one 25:29 long and one 26:56 long. It contains interviews with Scorsese, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, and editor Tom Rolf. The Scorsese interviews are expansions from the clips used in the introduction, with some additional odds and ends. The featurette is honest and informative, with most of the participants candidly discussing how the film's frenzied production affected their work, and plainly admitting the film's weaknesses but also celebrating its high points. The absence of De Niro or screenwriters Mardik Martin and Earl Mac Rauch is notable, though, as they surely would have had some interesting insights into the film's improvisational nature.
Minelli does not appear in the featurette at all. Her interview is available as a separate feature, "Liza on New York, New York" (22:07). She mostly talks about her family and her time growing up on the same lot that the film would up being shot on, but she does discuss her admiration for the film (she loves it wholeheartedly) and how much she loved making it. It's pleasant, inconsequential fluff, although she does tell an amusing story about a very specific piece of direction she got from Scorsese.
Finally Disc Two has selected scenes with commentary by Kovacs (10:15). He's not nearly as technical as he could have been, and instead explains how some complicated shots were put together essentially on the fly. Since Kovacs' cinematography is one of the best elements of the film, this is definitely worth a look.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Martin Scorsese is far too talented a director to make a boring film, and New York, New York, for all its many flaws, isn't boring. Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes, courtesy of the impressive work of Kovacs and production designer Boris Leven. The climactic musical number, "Happy Endings," is a mini-masterpiece, both as a set piece and as a culmination to the story. The actors, as could be expected, give uniformly superb performances. Minelli in particular blossoms as the film progresses, as she turns Francine from a shy, naïve girl into a woman who finally learns to use her talent and ambition to build herself a better life. And finally, Scorsese says on the commentary that New York, New York is one of the most personal films he has ever made. The parallels between Jimmy and Scorsese himself—who was, at the time, a hotheaded, stubborn young artist struggling with an equally stubborn pregnant young wife—do give the film an added dimension. That Scorsese was never able to pull all of these elements together into a consistent whole is a disappointment, but the film, as overlong and meandering as it is, is still an important part of his body of work. Compared to some of the slick, glossy star vehicles he's made since then, New York, New York does, in spots, teem with the energy and passion of the best Scorsese.
Fans who own the single-disc version of this film should spring for the new two-disc set, as the new features are worth the investment. Anyone else should probably watch before deciding to buy, as the film is lengthy and uneven.
New York, New York is found guilty of not allowing its extraordinary individual parts to add up to a satisfying whole. MGM, however, is acquitted by putting together a very good DVD (apart from the commentary and the lack of an anamorphic transfer) that shows off this fascinating misfire with just about as much care and detail as one could want.
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Scales of Justice
• Martin Scorsese Introduction
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