Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A few months back Warners came out with a boxed set of Martin Scorsese films and now MGM follows
up with its own four-film, five-disc offering. Although overall the titles are not as varied or
interesting, this collection can boast what is probably Scorsese's masterpiece, Raging Bull,
in a fine new transfer.
Raging Bull was one of MGM's first five DVDs released in 1997 and the first DVD title
Savant saw on a screen after an MGM exec unpacked a little RCA player and plugged it in. I think my
first words were "but this one isn't 16:9 enhanced," a typically un-politic remark that didn't go
down well at the time. This new version does the title justice.
New York, New York is also new to DVD. Already reviewed at DVD Savant are two earlier
titles that have been repackaged,
Boxcar Bertha and
The Last Waltz. I'll
concentrate here on the new items.
Martin Scorsese's followup to Taxi Driver was the most anticipated film of early 1977.
I remember the crowds waiting in line at the Cinerama Dome, eager to find out what the director
would do with
Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli in a glitzy Hollywood musical. As it turned out Scorsese did too
little with too many ideas. The film is a mix of imagined showbiz bio, unpleasant
characters and elaborate hommages to MGM musicals and the career of Judy Garland. It also includes
some stylistic touches inspired by Scorsese's filmic hero, Michael Powell.
Not much works in New York, New York, starting with the basic concept. Audiences wanted to
like Earl Mac Rauch's story of twin musical careers but the film insists on wedding upbeat
visuals to a story that basically goes nowhere.
Plotwise, New York, New York is identical to a standard musical bio from the 30s or
40s, the template for which might be
Alexander's Ragtime Band. A
pair of wide-eyed young talents start off in showbiz almost by accident, find success and fall in
love. Fate and careers pull them apart yet they're somehow reunited in a kitschy musical climax.
The sure-fire formula worked more often than it should have.
Loner sax player Jimmy Doyle and spirited USO singer Francine Evans "meet cute," if a little
nervously. Despite being more than a little overbearing in his obnoxiousness, we like Jimmy Doyle.
In normal musical bio, Doyle would eventually mellow, find some decent values and become an okay
But this is the Scorsese universe and Doyle seems to have wandered in from Travis Bickle country.
We Taxi Driver converts were dismayed when, at about the film's midpoint, we realized that
the movie wasn't going to develop and the characters weren't going to grow. Jimmy Doyle starts as
a selfish and egotistical talent who becomes abusive when Francine becomes more successful than
he. His brand of progressive jazz sax isn't mainstream and Francine's singing is, so she becomes
the enemy. I believe the characters, I know they're real, but applying them to such a stylized
musical bio framework is a big drag. New York, New York is a stack of variable musical numbers
held apart by reels of an unpleasant guy being abusive to a woman who stays at his side
far beyond any reason.
In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls author Peter Biskind gives plenty of reasons for
to fashion a movie out of such promising elements: Big stars, lots of attractive
swing music and plenty of money for production. A reel was cut out for the first theatrical
engagements, but the material later restored only slows down the dramatically dead middle and end
sections of the film. We're way ahead of the characters and frankly bored by the lack of variety
in the scenes. The story of why Jimmy Doyle stays a rotten heel has no particular meaning, and the
good acting of the supporting cast and Liza Minnelli - who carries what works almost singlehandedly -
goes for naught. Scorsese gives the film a naturalistic, feel-bad ending that has no impact.
The director's faith in improvisational magic wasn't helped by his interest in the stylistics of
older movie genres. He'd opened
Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore with
an effective evocation of its heroine's dreams as expressed in a stylistic takeoff on Gone With
The Wind. Here in New York, New York he fills the screen with crowds celebrating V-J
day and sweeps his camera up above ballrooms crammed with extras, yet neglects to supply the
simple emotions needed to make such scenes work. Nobody praises the scripts of musicals like
Stormy Weather or The Gang's All Here, but the fact is that the corny backstage
dramatics in those
movies have a simple sincerity that Scorsese can't find. Marrying A Star is Born with
Umberto D only sounds like a good idea to a pretentious film student.
When the big numbers come, they don't pay off on the promise felt in the early singing scenes
where Francine repeatedly wins jobs for Doyle by steering him away from his progressive sax riffs.
Scorsese doesn't realize that the audience isn't going to understand why the club owners
don't like Doyle's sound, especially when Doyle is willing to compromise his principles and play
square backups for Francine's vocals. Also, when it comes to time to make Francine look like a star,
Scorsese's only ploy is to create lousy competition for her in the person of Bernice Bennett (Mary Kay
Place, being extremely cooperative), who can't carry a tune. A 'klunky' old musical bio would be
more gracious than that.
There are big musical moments in New York, New York, and the title tune is certainly powerful. 1
It's a climactic show-stopper that would have twice the impact if we weren't already exhausted
and bored. Liza screams one number earlier on (But the World Goes 'Round) that does most of
the damage. The one they excised for the main release was a Broadway Ballet-type piece about
the career of a star from movie usher to
top diva. It's done in the Gene Kelly - Vincente Minnelli style (more family hommage, there) with a
particularly ineffective aping of Minnelli's sense of color design. Lots of red and more big
camera moves can't hide the fact that the song is trite and the dancing uninspired. Like the rest
of the movie, we feel very little while ticking off the movie sources for individual shots, like
the 'floating closeup' of Liza in triumph as the background zooms away. It's taken from the end of the
Broadway Ballet in Singin' in
Ace designer Boris Leven's work elsewhere in the picture is much more interesting, especially the
minimalist marriage sequence filmed in front of painted forest backdrops. The sense of visual
economy helps the emotion of the sequence ... or maybe it's just Robert De Niro acting like a
decent fellow for twenty seconds ("I love you!") that makes the design look good.
Scorsese's play with classic stylistics he admires has little impact. Montages
and hand-painted titles (some looking identical to work in The Red Shoes) may have made
him happy, but throwing together a bunch of effects from old movies one likes does not a movie make.
Larry Kert, Broadway's original Tony in West Side Story, is in the once-deleted musical number.
Interesting underseen actor Don Calfa is glimpsed in only one shot as a musician sitting next
to De Niro on the bandstand. New York, New York doesn't follow through on any of its
character roles, and our emotional investment in actors like Lionel Stander, Dick Miller and Georgie Auld
is not repaid.
MGM's disc of New York, New York is considered a special edition and has a new transfer
approved by the filmmakers, but the image is not the best. The fact that the 1:66 transfer is
presented flat already makes it look worse than films of that ratio that are given pillarbox
enhancement. Beyond that, the encoding seems light, with small details breaking up on a large
The extras are very nice. Martin Scorsese introduces the film in a helpful piece produced by MGM's
Greg Carson. There is an audio commentary by Scorsese with film critic Carrie Rickey. Scorsese
analyzes his film that got away honestly and thoughtfully.
The long extra from the old laserdisc, a selection of alternate and deleted improvised
scenes, has been added but trimmed a bit to allow for space constraints. There is also a photo
gallery, trailer and teaser.
Whatever cinematic gods Martin Scorsese offended with New York, New York, he won his way
back into their good graces with Raging Bull, a movie that definitely engages all of the
director's creative instincts. Whereas the no-brainer Hollywood musical movie was an artistic flop,
this brutal biography of a terminally antisocial boxer bounced around in Scorsese's head for years
as an unfilmable concept. But the resulting film is successful in theme, presentation and performances
and may be its director's masterpiece.
Major boxing contender Jake La Motta (Robert De Niro) lives a crowded and sordid
life with his manager brother Joey (Joe Pesci), abusing their put-upon wives and hobnobbing with
street wiseguys. He meets and weds neighborhood beauty Vickie (Cathy Moriarity) and begins a
career upswing dominated by sheer toughness: he doesn't always win but as he can take any amount
of punishment in the ring, nobody seems able to knock him down. Jake's attitude in relationships is
just as primitive, bull-headed and savage: all arguments with Joey or Vickie are resolved with
verbal or physical brutality. Having such a pretty wife leads inevitably to jealousy and paranoid
fantasies of Vickie cheating on him, and the apex of Jake's boxing fame is ruined when he brutally
drives away his family and friends. Only much later in life does he realize the slightest bit of
fault in his character.
Martin Scorsese's best pictures - Mean Streets, Taxi Driver,
Goodfellas - are all emotionally
draining experiences showing people in the worst possible light. The original Variety review
said that "Martin Scorsese makes films about people you wouldn't want
to know," and this 1980 boxing movie is repulsively fascinating. It's plenty violent in the ring but
the real brutality is in its completely convincing relationships. They have the sordid awfulness of
arguments heard through apartment walls, the ones that you don't want to be hearing. Pathetic people
treating each other inhumanly is bad enough (see
Animal Love for the despairing
routine of that trip) but Jake LaMotta wields a threat of violence behind his every
wrong-headed demand and accusation. We all know people that try to dominate relationships through
petty psychological coercion, but Jake is an infantile monster willing to lash out at any provocation
real or imagined. Almost every scene in Raging Bull is an unbearably tense exhibition of
kindergarten level conflicts that remind us of our most traumatic memories. Ignorant and uneducated
people can be a lot like Jake LaMotta.
Scorsese gets to do what he does best in Raging Bull, balance brutally unflinching
relationships with heavily stylized visuals. With a cameraman inspired by the ability to shoot in
B&W, the look of the film gets and holds our attention. We feel the stale rooms, the sweaty nightclubs
and the heat next to the public pools. The slow motion tricks from Taxi Driver work even
better here, as does the unflattering attitude toward domestic violence: The camera stands back and watches
it happen like it does in real life.
In 1980 we went to Raging Bull expecting to see long boxing scenes. We instead got a handful
of sequences in the ring that were easily the most intense and visually stylized scenes of
their kind ever. The extras in this special edition DVD spell out the techniques used in exacting
detail, but at the time we were jolted by the ferocity of the fighting, the powerful camera
moves and the outrageously effective sound effects. Jungle animal screams, machine noises and
rockets going off seemed to accompany LaMotta's mighty punches, with rioters tossed into the
bleachers and blood splattering into the first rows. Scorsese never lets us in on the details of
the fights or tries to create an ordinary backstage boxing drama. The five or six boxing scenes hit us
out of nowhere, keeping us on edge even though they account for a small percentage of the film's
Instead of finding nobility or righteousness in the appalling character of Jake LaMotta, Scorsese
lets the Bronx Bull's story speak for itself. LaMotta's tale has a natural circularity that has to be
imposed on stories like Fellini's
La Strada, where Anthony Quinn's Zampano
comes to an an eventual state of self-pity and possible redemption. Jake's personal path is
universally understood - a brutish and powerful man drives away all who love him, only discovering
what he needs and loves when they're gone. Scorsese doesn't blame drink or drugs or crime or even the
everpresent religious icons for any of this; it's just human nature. Luis Buñuel would use
this framework for a nasty critique of society at large, but this time around Scorsese (and surely
key collaborator Robert De Niro) understand their story and how to tell it. Raging Bull is
the mirror image of the standard inspirational biography. It gives us chills if we recognize even
a hint of ourselves in Jake, and makes us grateful for ordinary human decency in any form.
What redeems LaMotta is his total lack of self-knowledge. The most appalling
scene of all is when he destroys his championship belt to extract its jewels, too stupid
to realize that the belt has value as an intact item and not for the cheap gems. He's truly
innocent, a blind bull understanding nothing about his own sporting accomplishments.
Raging Bull got Robert De Niro his acting Oscar after he astonished audiences and critics
with his commitment to the role - gaining all that weight "just for a movie." Newcomers Joe Pesci
and Cathy Moriarty are just as good and as an acting unit in those intense dramatic scenes they're
among the best American film actors ever. Theresa Saldana and Frank Vincent head a short but
effective supporting cast.
This two-disc special edition of Raging Bull does justice to one of the best films in MGM's
library, even if it isn't the easiest to watch. The dialogue is so brutally real that it is in no
way appropriate for children. This remaster is enhanced at 1:85 and has all the sharpness and tonal
nuance of the original theatrical prints; the only thing missing is the focus-shift every time one
of the color home movie sequences pops in.
The extras are a mix of goodies new and old (see below for exact specs). There are three audio
commentaries, newsreel footage and a new Automat-produced shot-by-shot comparison of one of
LaMotta's real fights to the Scorsese version. The docu The Bronx Bull covers much of the
same territory as Laurent Bouzereau's 4 'featurettes,' which actually comprise a much more
comprehensive look at the film. Everybody is interviewed - Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci, Moriarty,
screenwriter Paul Schrader, editor Thelma Schoonmaker - and all are honest and forthcoming about
the picture. It's one of Bouzereau's most satisfying DVD jobs.
The Martin Scorsese Film collection includes two other films.
Boxcar Bertha is his early
directing effort under the auspices of American International and is an okay film not particularly
suited to the director's strengths.
The Last Waltz will be more
familiar to music fans than cinema addicts. I direct readers to Savant's previous reviews for
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
New York, New York rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Good -
Supplements: Commentary by director Martin Scorsese and film critic Carrie Rickey,
Introduction by Martin Scorsese, 25 minutes of alternate takes and deleted scenes, Photo gallery,
Original theatrical trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Raging Bull rates:
Supplements: Commentary by director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker,
Commentary by director of photography Michael Chapman, producer Irwin Winkler, music producer
Robbie Robertson, producer Robert Chartoff, actress Theresa Saldana, actor John Turturro,
and supervising sound effects editor Frank Warner, Commentary by writer Mardik Martin, writer
Paul Schrader, boxer-author Jake LaMotta, and LaMotta's nephew Jason Lustig,
Serialzed docu: Raging Bull: Before the Fight/Inside the Ring/Outside the Ring/After the Fight;
The Bronx Bull: making-of documentary,
De Niro vs. LaMotta: shot-by-shot comparison of De Niro and LaMotta in the ring, Newsreel footage of the real LaMotta
Packaging: paper and plastic folder in card sleeve; all four boxed set discs in a heavy carboard
Reviewed: January 29, 2005
1. The title tune would
have made even a mediocre 'straight' musical version of the movie a success. I remember an editor
friend playing me a bootleg cassette of Minnelli singing the song at least six months before the
film came out. Musical fans behaved as if they were hoping the movie would reincarnate Judy
Garland in the body of her own daughter.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2004 Glenn Erickson
Go BACK to the Savant Main Page.