Even the greatest can stumble. Martin Scorsese, arguably the most gifted of American filmmakers working today, was riding high in the mid-1970s. His Mean Streets, released in 1973, heralded the arrival of a singular cinematic talent, while his '74 follow-up, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, proved that the guy could do more than angst-ridden tales of lowlife thugs. Then came 1975's Taxi Driver and its darkly disturbing take on vigilantism, isolation and urban decay. Scorsese and his actor of choice, Robert De Niro, were suddenly the darlings of mainstream Hollywood.
Given the high hopes that surrounded their next collaboration, perhaps it was only inevitable that audiences and critics would wind up disappointed. But New York, New York did more than just fall short of expectations; it was a commercial and critical flop, and it helped send Scorsese into a cocaine-laden depression that lasted for several years.
Revisiting the film via this 30th-anniversary two-disc edition, the most striking thing about New York, New York is how, well, dull it is. That's not a trait you're likely to hear about a Martin Scorsese work, but the picture's mishmash of opposing ideas never coalesces. Scorsese and screenwriters Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin certainly wade into potentially interesting waters, mashing the hyper-stylized look of classic MGM musicals with Seventies-era realism, but the movie fails to generate nearly as much interest as the concept behind it.
Set in the Big Apple of the 1940s and '50s, New York, New York chronicles the tumultuous relationship of torch singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli, sounding very much like mom Judy Garland) and a volatile jazz saxophonist, Jimmy Doyle (De Niro). They meet cute (well, in a stalker sort of way) during a V-J Day celebration. Francine, despite every sign that Jimmy is nuttier than a Mr. Goodbar, eventually surrenders to his creepy charms. They fall in love, and Francine helps Jimmy land a steady gig with a traveling big band. But Francine's rising star sparks tensions between the two, especially when Jimmy's career is limited by his gifted -- if uncompromising and commercially unviable -- style.
They fight and make up. They get married. They fight some more. Francine gets knocked up and Jimmy gets going. And so it goes, for more than two and a half hours.
Scorsese's greatest films are often populated with disturbing and unredeemable characters, but rarely are they as uninteresting as Jimmy Doyle. He is petty and insecure, jealous and violent. More problematic is that the film never really sells the notion that the guy is a musical genius. Jimmy tells Francine that music is his life, but the audience doesn't experience him agonizing over his art. Unlike Raging Bull's Jake La Motta or Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, the self-torture of Jimmy Doyle is all surface.
Even so, there is an undeniable curiosity to the spectacle of a chip-off-the-ol' Bickle traipsing through a Vincente Minnelli-wannabe musical. Scorsese didn't lack audacity. In New York, New York, he sought to pit the artifice of classic MGM-styled musicals against the edgy naturalism of the 1970s. It's odd, alright, a collision of lavish production and the downbeat tale of a lout and his long-suffering lover (a dichotomy that proved more compelling in 1981's Pennies from Heaven). With its sweeping crane and dolly shots, the movie is often visually arresting and a showcase for the talents of production designer Boris Leven and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. But style alone does not make the flick any less of an empty zoot suit.
Moreover, the picture is just too long, seemingly a byproduct of filmmakers who hoped that meaning might eventually bubble up from an interminable narrative. The movie's initial release was 153 minutes, but United Artists later sliced it down to 136 minutes. In 1981, New York, New York was re-released with restored material, including the final act's "Happy Endings" number. The DVD clocks in past 160 minutes.
New York, New York tanked at the box office, sending Scorsese into a downward emotional spiral. The film shoot had been rough enough. According to Pete Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the director and Liza Minnelli were having a less-than-clandestine affair fueled by coke. In Andy Warhol's Diary, the artist recalled that Minnelli, with Scorsese in tow, showed up on Halston's doorstep one evening begging for "every drug you've got." Scorsese and his then-wife, writer Julie Cameron, divorced shortly after the completion of the film and the birth of the couple's child.
Presented in widescreen 1.66:1 -- and inexplicably not enhanced for 16x9 television screens -- the picture quality is generally adequate, with lush colors and inky blacks. Otherwise, there is slight grain and digital noise in a few dimly lit scenes.
Whatever its narrative failings, New York, New York features some terrific Big Band music, especially its theme song performed by Liza Minnelli (and popularized a couple of years later by Frank Sinatra), that is well-served by the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. The sound is clear and clean, although volume is a bit inconsistent in parts. An English 2.0 mono track is available, as well as Spanish mono.
Optional subtitles are in English, French and Spanish.
An impressive selection of extras is included in this two-disc set, although some bonuses are carried over from the movie's previous DVD release.
An introduction by Martin Scorsese (5:35) is a truncated version of remarks he makes elsewhere on the DVD's retrospective documentary (and repeated in the commentary). The director outlines how he wanted to explore the tension between old-Hollywood artifice and (then-) new-Hollywood naturalism, conceding that he is unsure how successful he was.
A commentary alternates between Scorsese and Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey. The motormouth director's encyclopedic knowledge of cinema always makes for an informative and entertaining time. Rickey's remarks, while insightful, feel overly scripted. Although the track is obviously edited from two separate recording sessions, there are long patches of dead air throughout.
A collection of alternate takes and deleted scenes runs for 19 minutes, 11 seconds. It reveals the extent of improvisation that Scorsese and the actors employed, but this stuff was excised for a reason. In addition, much of the footage has been plagued by scratches and small rips. Along with the commentary and a photo gallery, this extra is a holdover from New York, New York's previous DVD release. Incidentally, the only option is to play all scenes in succession.
The remainder of the supplemental material is on Disc Two. A lengthy retrospective titled The Stories of New York, New York is broken into two parts, with respective running times of 25:39 and 26:57. The mini-docs are thorough and handsomely crafted, featuring interviews with Scorsese, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, screenwriter Mardik Martin, director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, editor Tom Rolf and others. There are some great anecdotes, including a bit about how the frustrating ending of New York, New York prompted French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier in 1987 to make 'Round Midnight. Winkler is blunt in his assessment of New York, New York: "It doesn't quite work, frankly." De Niro is noticeably absent in the featurettes.
Clocking in just shy of 23 minutes, Liza on New York, New York is a pleasant trip down memory lane with the star of stage and screen. Her remarks encompass much more than the film itself, as she waxes nostalgic about what it was like to be the child of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli.
Commentary on selected scenes with Laszlo Kovacs is another nice addition. The veteran cinematography describes the headaches that stemmed from coordinating Scorsese's often complicated visions. The extra runs a little past 10 minutes.
A photo gallery boasts six subcategories: filmmakers, cast and crew; on set; French lobby cards; research photos; original posters; and storyboards. Also included are a theatrical trailer, teaser trailer and previews of other MGM releases.
This latest DVD edition of New York, New York seeks to rehabilitate the film that has long divided Scorsese admirers. With its two-part retrospective and additional featurettes, the package comes close to succeeding -- but, in the end, you're still burdened with a movie that has dreary characters and a sputtering storyline. And for a film that is so visually remarkable, yet another nonanamorphic version is baffling. A definite mixed bag.