Scorsese's Strange, but Interesting Musical
Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro, New York, New York (1977) is a curious film that can get under a thoughtful viewer's skin. In it, Scorsese seems to be ruminating on various interrelated issues, including spontaneity versus structure, society and the individual, and the nature of masculinity. The movie contains lots of enjoyable music, yet the viewer feels uncomfortable much of the time and is left at the end with a bitter aftertaste.
The story is about a female vocalist (Minnelli) and a tenor sax man (De Niro) who meet, marry, perform together for a while, then split up. There's little narrative drive and no screen chemistry between Minnelli and De Niro. The film's focus is on how the singer and the sax player clash in terms of temperament, values and goals. The movie showcases Minnelli performing highly polished musical numbers, while De Niro creates an obnoxious character who is a second cousin to his Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and a first cousin to his Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.
Since New York, New York is a backstage musical that takes place from 1945 to 1957, Scorsese made it look similar to MGM and Warner Bros. musicals of that era. He is exceptionally knowledgeable about music and artfully integrated it into the story. But although the visual elements and music are superb, the film's dialogue is often jarring. The actors improvised a lot of their lines, and while this occasionally gives a scene raw emotionality, there are times when it sounds like an acting school exercise.
A Dysfunctional Married Couple Pursue Careers as Musicians
The central characters in New York, New York are moody, impulsive, alienated Jimmy Doyle (De Niro) and even-tempered, sensible, well-adjusted Francine Evans (Minnelli). They meet at the Times Square celebration of the end of World War II and end up on a long road trip with a big band, he as a saxophonist, she as the girl singer. They play towns like Scranton, Paducah and Texarkana, and someplace in the middle of nowhere they are married by a Justice of the Peace. But when Francine gets pregnant, Jimmy grows unhappy, and the marriage slides downhill.
At the time Jimmy and Francine meet, the popularity of big bands playing swing is waning. But Jimmy's passion is to do highly improvisational avant-garde jazz, and although mainstream 1946 audiences aren't ready for such music, he manages to find a niche for himself in a sextet in Harlem. Francine, on the other hand, is terrific at performing carefully rehearsed popular songs in a style more or less like Doris Day or Jo Stafford. She gets a recording contract with Decca, and the general public loves her music. However, Francine's success deepens the divide between her and Jimmy.
The Film's Music
The song "New York, New York" became a huge international hit when Frank Sinatra sang it in 1979. However, it was written especially for the 1977 movie and introduced to the world by Liza Minnelli.
The title tune was one of four original songs in New York, New York, all written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, and all sung by Minnelli. Two of the others were "But the World Goes 'Round" and “There Goes the Ballgame." The fourth was "Happy Endings," used in the spectacular 12-minute production number Francine performs when she becomes a movie star in the 1950s.
There are several old standards in the film, including "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me," "Once in a While," "You Are My Lucky Star," "The Man I Love" and "Just You, Just Me." Mary Kay Place performs a deliberately amateurish version of "Blue Moon." Possibly the most charming musical number is done by Diahnne Abbot, who was married to De Niro from 1976 to 1988, when she sings a sultry rendition of "Honeysuckle Rose."
De Niro learned to handle the saxophone well enough to make it look as though he's playing Jimmy's numbers, but the music we hear that is supposed to be coming out of his horn was played by Georgie Auld. Auld also appears on camera in the role of bandleader and clarinetist Frankie Harte.
The Filmmakers Look Back
The DVD set contains a 52-minute documentary "The New York, New York Stories," which is broken into two parts of approximately equal length and consists primarily of interviews with producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, director Martin Scorsese, cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and editor Tom Rolf. This provides a lot of information about the project from its beginnings as a script by Earl Mac Rauch to the film's 1977 preview screenings in San Francisco.
Part of Scorsese's concept was that his movie should look like a big Hollywood musical made about 1950, so he shot on the MGM lot. He also wanted to use a 1.33 to 1 aspect ratio and the Technicolor three-strip process, but both turned out to be so outdated as to be impractical. But another part of Scorsese's concept for New York, New York was that the acting should be naturalistic, and the actors' behavior would create a tension with the artificial look of the film. Furthermore, he brought screenwriter Mardik Martin on board, and the story was reworked and became darker than in Rauch's original script. Winkler summarizes the outcome of all this as conflict between two people who can't get along played against a magical background, and he says, "I think it doesn't quite work, frankly."
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