Start spreading the news, I'm leaving today.
I want to be a part of it -
New York, New York.
These vagabond shoes are longing to stray
And step around the heart of it - New York, New York.
I want to wake up in a city that doesn't sleep,
To find I'm king of the hill, top of the heap.
My little town blues are melting away
I'm gonna make a brand new start of it, in old New York.
If I can make it there, I'd make it anywhere
It's up to you, New York, New York.
Composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb penned what is arguably the quintessential New York anthem (after that other "New York, New York" by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden & Adolph Green) for Martin Scorsese, lest we forget. The song is officially called "Theme from New York, New York." Both the song and the film romanticize the city, at least in the abstract, but the film is less sanguine about the people who inhabit the city, and their own shots at romance. In addition to being geographically thorough (city and state)—and alluding to Bernstein, Comden & Green's On the Town—the title of the film suggests two New York Citys: the real one and our idealization of it. The title also could refer to the diametric personalities of the film's leading characters, each of whom is a recognizable type of New Yorker.
On V-J Day, jazz saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) trolls a nightclub for women and lights on Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), a recently liberated USO singer who refuses to go along with Jimmy's lines. A natural-born scammer, Jimmy appalls Francine on the one hand, but on the other, she cannot deny his magnetism. They strike up a relationship and soon find themselves performing together in the same touring big band, but all is not wine and roses. Jimmy's mercurial personality keeps Francine on edge—she's never sure what reaction she'll get out of him: a tantrum or a marriage proposal. But the couple's greatest challenge is Jimmy's pride, his inability to concede that Francine has brains and talent equal to—and perhaps greater than—his own.
And so Jimmy's tragic flaw keeps New York, New York veering sharply away from the plot's otherwise conventional musical comedy. On paper, beat for beat, the plot of New York, New York sounds like dozens of musical comedies produced during Hollywood's Golden Age. A meet-cute, a whirlwind romance with a touch of screwball comedy, complicated by personal crisis and backstage dramas, punctuated regularly by musical numbers. But Scorsese and screenwriters Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin play against the musical archetypes at least as much as they play into them, which is what makes this underrated picture such a fascinating exercise, a deconstruction of the movie musical and its simplistic resolutions.
Scorsese says he was after the story of how "creative people" can have difficulty coexisting, especially in a romantic relationship. The typical Golden Age movie musical swept real life under the rug, and Scorsese will have none of that. Jimmy's jealousy quickly escalates to sociopathy, with a volcanic temper that goes so far as roughing up Francine; meanwhile, her unexpected pregnancy throws into chaos a band that is just hitting its stride. For Francine's part, she's not getting the support and encouragement of her husband in independently pursuing her own talents and career, an ugly truth of marital relationships in the period in which the film takes place.
Much of the resistance to the film comes from De Niro's unsympathetic character, but it's precisely the point, especially of the actor's fearless artistry. (It would be equally spineless simply to make Jimmy a villainous foil to Francine's hero, which New York, New York doesn't allow.) He is something of a monster, but in compensation for a fragile, needy ego that, in essence, wants desperately to be loved and to find personal fulfillment. These two goals turn out to be in conflict, a theme that becomes explicit in Jimmy's defense, expressed as an ultimatum, of his saxophone nights away from his pregnant wife.
For Francine, the picture's other "New York," hope springs eternal. In the film's story, she is the author of the title tune (which Jimmy grudgingly compliments before riding the song to a career high), which expresses her own yearning to make it, even if she has to go it alone. She has a generous spirit, to a point, but Jimmy is never satisfied, and even less so when his wife achieves something, the salt in his wounds. Francine's open heart and positive attitude show her to be the soul of the traditional musical, while Jimmy is the quintessential early-Scorsese overreacher, an emotionally damaged chump who can "make it," but only by walking through flames. Both are genuine artists, but one chafes under conventions (Jimmy only feels truly at home playing pure jazz alongside his African-American friends, including a trumpeter played by saxophonist Clarence Clemons), while the other thrives within them, as seen by Francine's success as a recording artist and musical actress.
The apotheosis of Francine's character comes when she stars in a screen musical, pointedly called "Happy Endings," in which her character achieves her proto-feminist dream of having it all: the career she loves and a man who loves her. In a way, Francine has that in real life, too—but can they live with each other? Though Minnelli and De Niro make the oddest of couples, Minnelli holds her own, and one can't help but think of the films made by her mother (Judy Garland) and father (film director Vincente Minnelli) while seeing her hold the center of this unusual musical.
New York, New York brims with bravura filmmaking, all the more intriguing for its meeting of a perfectly old school audio-visual aesthetic with new-school Actors Studio realism, including a great deal of improvisation. Old school standards like "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me," "The Man I Love" and "Just You, Just Me" sit easily alongside Kander & Ebb's new tunes, including the "Happy Endings" suite and Minnelli's belted ballad "But the World Goes 'Round." Scorsese gets to get his Vincente Minnelli on with the "Happy Endings" sequence, a gorgeous swan dive into the pure musical cinema of pictures like The Red Shoes and An American in Paris. Despite the gorgeous, traditional, intentionally larger-than-life Hollywood production design of Boris Leven (West Side Story), nothing happens in New York, New York that can't be rationalized as realistic: characters don't randomly break out into song (a couple breaks into a wee-hours dance on V-J Day, but even that dreamy moment could happen).
New York, New York's detractors have a point: Scorsese's off-the-leash production is a bit perverse, something like a three-hour film-school argument about the merits of movie musicals. But every time I return to it, I'm entranced by Scorsese's ability simultaneously to make the musical escape he loves—in gloriously lavish style—while constantly keeping one foot in our always disappointing real world. It's ultimately a very personal film about how Scorsese views a genre of film and, as such, has a much more coherent vision than its reputation would suggest.
MGM gives New York, New York its Blu-ray debut in a solid upgrade from its standard-def counterpart. One suspects the film could look better than this, despite the inherent softness of the source: though film grain is appropriate, it occasionally becomes oppressive here, and black level is mediocre. Still, detail does improve over standard def, and the picture especially excels in color representation, with spot-on flesh tones and a rich palette that's all-around accurate. The soundtrack gets a boost into clear-enough DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, but don't expect too much in the way of immersive dynamics: it's a fairly front-heavy presentation, and can be a bit muddy, but again, a good effort has been made to maximize the source material.
Bonus features are outstanding, beginning with the feature-length commentary with journalist Carrie Rickey and director Martin Scorsese. A well-prepared Rickey filibusters with film theory, and Scorsese is, of course, the king of commentary, with plenty of interesting remarks about the film's history, from concept to execution to reception. Additionally, there's commentary on select scenes with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (10:15, SD), who recalls specific challenges and approaches.
Spoiler alert! Watch the "Introduction by Martin Scorsese" (5:36, SD), but watch it only after watching the feature.
Twenty "Alternate Takes/Deleted Scenes" (19:14, SD) provide special insight into the improvisation employed during production.
"New York, New York Stories: Part One" (25:31, SD) and "Part Two" (26:58, SD) amount to an excellent one-hour making-of doc, despite the conspicuous absence of Robert De Niro (Minnelli turns up in her own featurette). On hand are Scorsese, Kovacs, film editor Tom Rolf, and producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff.
"Liza on New York, New York" (22:09, SD) is an engaging and interesting reminiscence by the film's star, who addresses her career, personal history, the making of the film, and her collaboration with Scorsese and the mysterious De Niro.
Last up are the "Teaser Trailer" (3:25, HD) and "Theatrical Trailer" (2:05, HD).
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