Just about every director has a movie in his or her canon that is considered some kind of cinematic blunder. For the maverick filmmakers of the 1970s, most of them stumbled into some kind of hubristic minefield following their decade-defining successes. Several of them did so while trying to make a Hollywood musical. Francis Ford Coppola's One from the Heart immediately comes to mind. Peter Bogdanovich made At Long Last Love. And, of course, Martin Scorsese tried to bring the house down with New York, New York.
All of these films now have their apologists. Time definitely makes a difference when assessing art. Someone, somewhere must even like the Bogdanovich picture (I haven't seen it). I won't try to argue that New York, New York is a masterpiece, nor will I even try to claim that audiences and critics were wrong to be baffled by Scorsese's three-hour downer when it was released in its studio-mandated shorter form back in 1977. I do, however, find it a fascinating experiment, moreso than even Coppola's neon mishaps, because Scorsese endeavors to be more than pastiche. New York, New York is an attempt to meld new-school freedoms and realism with Golden Age spectacle, peeling back the curtains on the showbiz myths promoted in films like A Star is Born, and give us the grime and the dirt that often lies just underfoot whenever volatile artists and entertainers do their work.
New York, New York stars Robert De Niro as Jimmy Doyle and Liza Minnelli as Francine Evans, a saxophone player and singer. Even in this casting, we get a clear idea of the two sides of Hollywood that Scorsese is playing with. De Niro is part of a feral new breed, and his Jimmy stalks the screen like a caged animal, unwilling to be contained--which, indeed, Jimmy wasn't, that's one of the movie's main themes. On the other hand, Minnelli is part of a showbiz legacy, and movies starring her mother and directed by her father were a large part of the tradition that Scorsese is drawing from. She is glamour and inherent talent; he is all method and instinct. Both performance styles mean wearing one's heart on one's sleeve, it's just a matter of how one displays that heart. Is it frilly and sewed on, or a tattoo inked through ripped fabric?
Jimmy and Francine meet on V-J day at a party in New York. She is still in her USO uniform, he's dropped his soldiering clothes for a Hawaiian shirt and white pants. She's all class, he's all attitude. At first, she wants nothing to do with him, but their lives are now inextricably tangled, especially after Francine helps Jimmy through a nightclub audition and they end up getting a job together. Too bad she's got a gig with a big band going on tour. Francine cuts out on Jimmy, and frustrated by losing this opportunity to blow his horn, he tracks her down and gets a seat with the orchestra. When the bandleader (Georgie Auld) retires, Jimmy takes over and takes the group in a new direction, but success is curbed by Francine getting pregnant. She returns to New York, finds new success, and this breeds new jealousy. Jimmy doesn't want to be the kept husband of a famous wife.
The script by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin plays with big melodramatic toys. Their plot is as old as musicals themselves. What sets New York, New York apart from the source of its homage is how the illusions are scrubbed away. The love affair between Jimmy and Francine has hardly any love in it at all. On the contrary, it's hard to tell why they even like each other. Jimmy is unrelentingly unlikeable, one temper tantrum away from being an abusive husband. He's a drama queen and a brat, and at no point are any apologies made for what a heel he is. The audience expects for a movie musical to make allowances for this, to give him some kind of soft spot, something that redeems him; Scorsese offers no such escape. This conflict can be off-putting, particularly as New York, New York wears on. It's a long movie full of long scenes that take their time getting to their point and have the repetitive quirks of improv. There are plenty of places where Scorsese and/or any of his three editors could have trimmed the dialogue, particularly when Jimmy is really drilling some kind of nastiness into the ground; yet, they don't. Perhaps they want it to be punishing. Regardless, it's hard to think of another mainstream Hollywood film that has such a pronounced lack of concern for pacing.
Again, this could be Scorsese demythologizing glitz and glamour. Throughout the first two acts, his art department builds him massive, colorful sets: nightclubs full of light bulbs and neon and abstract wallpaper. They are astonishing constructions, but cinematographer László Kovács shoots on flat, metallic 1970s film stock, which removes the shine and exposes the cracks and the workmanship, so it all looks like a gaudy put-on. The failure of these parlor tricks to come off is a reflection of the characters' moods, from nausea to anger and back again.
This must have been an intentional decision, because Scorsese is perfectly capable of pulling off Busby Berkley-style musical numbers, as evinced in New York, New York's final act. Here he reveals that he has been holding back, and all of this pain and heartbreak has been building toward something. With Jimmy gone, Francine is free to construct her career as she sees fit, and her success is shown to the audience in the form of a movie within a movie, a Hollywood hoofer called Happy Endings. It's an extended production, a series of songs (music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb, who also wrote New York, New York's well-known theme) that quickly detail the rise of a moviehouse usherette to Broadway star, a dream that skyrockets and then turns on itself, coming back around again. It's a move borrowed from The Red Shoes, a film Scorsese worships. (Throughout the movie, Jimmy uses the alias of "Mike Powell," a tip of the hat to Red Shoes-director Michael Powell.) In much the same way as the ballet performance in the earlier picture, or even the extended outro of Gene Kelly's An American in Paris, stops the movie proper to give us a mirror image of everything else we've seen, so too does Happy Endings replay the difficulties that Francine has suffered through--only this time, restoring the well-worn tropes and feel-good concessions that Scorsese otherwise dropped. Minnelli delivers a bravura performance, proving once again that she can belt out a tune with the best of them, and it gives New York, New York its chance to finally take off. The whole sequence is terrific, setting up an ending where Scorsese once again plays with our expectations, teasing us and making us wonder if we'll get the finale the mini-musical offered or the one the larger musical that contains it was hinting at all along.
To close this review, a special note should be made of the music in New York, New York. The mix of new and old jazz numbers is perfect, and it's only helped by Scorsese hiring real musicians to play the background roles--including the late Clarence Clemmons as hornblower Cecil Powell. In addition to the show-stopping "Theme from New York, New York" (it doesn't hurt when the fictional big hit becomes a bonafide big hit), there is also a magnificent rendition of Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose" sung by Diahnne Abbott (at the time, De Niro's real wife) in a Harlem juke joint, evoking the memory of Lady Day. For the tunes alone, New York, New York is worth the extra travel.
The high-def presentation isn't exactly perfect, but then again, it's also likely a case of making do with what is there. Picture quality from scene to scene is noticeably all over the place, with many individual shots coming off as dark, hazy, or super grainy, depending on the segment in question. Other portions of the film are delightfully colorful, and there is an excellent representation of skin tones and the particular details of the art direction. I'd be tempted to put money down to bet that someone in the production booth was in love with Liza, as she seems to be rendered with a particularly strong attention to her flesh tones and the subtleties of her make-up.
While not a perfect presentation that delivers the kind of crisp and sparkly image Blu-Ray has started to train us to expect, a more realistic assessment is likely that this is an accurate representation of what the film actually looks like, as there isn't any indication that it has been tinkered with in ways that might degrade the intended picture quality in order to make it fit into a digital format. Given the film's checkered history, and also what we know of how movies were shot at the time, it's quite likely this is what has been pieced together and we're getting as good as we can get. Given the low marks our reviewers gave both the 2005 original DVD release and 2007 edition of New York, New York (I haven't seen the latter myself, only the former), I do feel confident in saying this has been at least given enough of an upgrade to justify fans of the film biting the bullet and buying the BD.
Both Spanish and French tracks are also offered, as well as subtitles in both languages and English closed captioning.