Saturday Editor’s Pick: New York, New York

by on June 18, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat June 18 at 8:30; Tue June 21 at 6:30; Sat June 25 at 8:30 at Anthology Film Archives [Program & Tix]


Nick Pinkerton gives a roundup of the first part of Anthology’s jaunty new series “Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s & 1980s,” programmed by Leah Churner, for the L Mag. Full series lineup here.

The 20th Century Limited that connected Broadway and Hollywood symbolically, New York and Los Angeles literally, stopped service in 1967: the same watershed year when, cultural lore has it, Bonnie and Clyde killed Doctor Doolittle, sacked Camelot, and the Big Movie Musical was forever invalidated.


Yet even as the wide-open 70s came on, with the long death rattle of the “Freed Unit” style expelling horrors like Mame, new approaches to the musical were underway. These are the subjects of Anthology’s program.


We are spotlighting many of Anthology’s screenings, but first in line for an overdue ovation is Martin Scorsese’s maligned New York, New York. Alt Screen’s Dan Callahan:

A downbeat homate to bright-lights showbiz dramas, an epic orchestration that indulges in stubbornly obsessive riffs, Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) seems to value awkwardness and indecision above all else. Coming off the success of Taxi Driver (1976), Scorsese secured a big budget and MGM sound stages for what was meant to be his tribute to and deconstruction of classic Hollywood musicals, but the tribute got lost somewhere in the deconstruction. The stars of the film, Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro, were encouraged to embroider their lines with improvisation, and whenever language begins to break down between them, De Niro pushes hard into inarticulate aggressiveness as Minnelli retreats into querulous befuddlement. Bathed in anxious red and purple neon, the movie plays out like some errant crossbreeding of Charles Vidor’s Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and John Cassavetes’s Minnie and Moskowitz (1971).



Scorsese began his project with noble intentions: “New York, New York would be a New Hollywood musical, a big budget homage to the musicals of the past with film student’s inflections, a sort of cross between Vincente Minnelli and John Cassavetes,” but later lamented”One of the things I will always thank the French for was giving me that grand prize at Cannes for Taxi Driver that allowed me to reveal to myself what a total failure I could be. […] For me it was just the beginning of going into an abyss for about two years and coming out of it just barely alive.” Peter Biskind details the troubled production in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:

New York, New York went into production without a finished script. […] Scorsese knew the script wasn’t ready. He explains, “You get a big head. You think, ‘Oh, I don’t have to make up a script, I can work it out on the soundstage when I’m there.’ Sure. A lot of guys work that way. Evidently, I couldn’t” Adds Sandy Weintraub, “After Mean Streets, the critics called Marty ‘The King of Improv.’ And he decided that he was ‘The King of Improv.’ […] That continued through Taxi [Driver] and obviously the result you see is New York, New York, where it got out of control.” Continues Martin, “It was a nightmare. I was writing up till the final frame. You don’t make movies like that.”


Scorsese says he used coke as a creative tool: “I didn’t know how to get to these feelings. I kept pushing and shoving and twisting and turning myself in different ways, and I started taking drugs to explore, and got sidetracked a lot of the time. We put ourselves through a lot of pain.” One day, he kept over 150 fully costumed extras waiting while he talked to his shrink from his trailer. He was sick a lot, and late to the set.” […]  The movie was intensely personal, for both Scorsese and De Niro. Consciously or unconsciously, De Niro’s jazz musician (Jimmy Doyle) – the artist as a young man – was very much Scorsese at that time, torn between the claims of his family and his art, intoxicated with his own talent, and honeycombed by self-hatred. Doyle rejects his baby just like Scorsese rejected his. The Minnelli character is a version of Julia Cameron, Sandy Weintraub, and other women Scorsese knew. Scorsese called it a $10 million “home movie.”


More of Scorsese himself:


Don’t be so sad Marty! Some critics really love your movie…


Geoff Andrew for Time Out London:

Scorsese’s tribute/parody/critique of the MGM musical is a razor-sharp dissection of the conventions of both meeting-cute romances and rags-to-riches biopics, as it charts the traumatic love affair between irresponsible but charming jazz saxophonist De Niro (dubbed by George Auld) and mainstream singer Minnelli. On an emotional level, the film is a powerhouse, offering some of the most convincingly painful rows ever shot; as a depiction of changes in American music and the entertainment world, it is accurate and evocative; and as a commentary on showbiz films, it’s a stunner, sounding echoes of Minnelli’s own mother’s movies and career (particularly A Star Is Born) as well as other classics like On the Town and the first A Star Is Born (in which Stander also appeared). Superbly scored, beautifully designed by Boris Leven to highlight the genre’s artificiality, and performed to perfection.


Dennis Dermody for Paper Mag:

Martin Scorsese’s wildly underrated 1977 film… [is] about the turbulent love affair between Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), a talented saxophone player, and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) a lounge singer, who meet after the end of World War II. I was fascinated withNew York, New York when it first came out and went to see it often. I saw the films Scorsese was riffing on —  especially Raoul Walsh’s moody The Man I Love, starring Ida Lupino — but there was an ambitious, coked-up, craziness here that made the film endlessly intriguing. With extravagant musical numbers and sensational lead performances, the movie is messy and mad and often quite beautiful.



And some critics at least give it a fair shake…


W. Scott Poole for Pop Matters:

New York, New York is one of the stranger films in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre… Why had Scorsese made, in essence, a musical? New York, New York told the story of Doyle and Francine’s love in the era of the big band, the era America was swinging. The narrative is interspersed with musical performances and dance numbers. Not only did it not have the gritty, documentary feel that fans of the new director had come to expect, word had it that it was mostly filmed on a studio lot, not unlike the mid-century films it seemed to parrot.  De Niro and Minnelli turned in fine performances, but where was the extreme violence, the use of crime as metaphor for existential angst, the deep pathos of loss, regret and even madness that had haunted Scorsese’s characters in earlier films? Had he abandoned the mean streets?


New York, New York is a composite creature, influenced as much by French New Wave as the studio musicals of midcentury Hollywood (Jean-Luc Godard apparently loved it). Rather than lacking some essential authenticity, the film was ahead of its time in calling into question the idea of authenticity itself. Audiences and critics didn’t ‘get’ this film because Scorsese was using irony before irony was cool.


The shade of George Cukor haunts Scorsese’s effort.  He references the great mid-century director in commentary and interviews and rewatching the film shows more than little of his influence. Indeed, its hard not to think of Cukor’s 1954 remake of A Star is Born while watching New York, New York. This is in part because of the obvious connections between the narratives of marriages crashing hard on the rocks of hopeful stardom. Its also because of the lavish sets that seem more a comment on lavish sets than the real thing and the exploration of the darkness beneath the music, the idea that performance has a set of hidden costs to the performer, that the cult of celebrity is a kind of death cult.


Tim Brayton for Antagony and  Ecstasy:

Regardless of one’s personal biases: Scorsese obviously knows his old-school studio musicals and he obviously loves them, and he obviously enjoys tinkering with them as well. This reaches its highest expression near the end, in a sequence that was cut from the original release and restored in 1981: the “Happy Endings” number. It’s not hard to find complaints that this is a horrid interruption in the narrative flow (it’s not much harder to find comments that it’s the only part of the film that completely works), but that’s kind of exactly the point: the number is in a few places a shot-specific homage to the “Broadway Melody” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain (I counted three shots, but I wasn’t really watching for it), but more generally it’s a reference to the brief vogue for twenty-minute non-diegetic ballets in the final quarter of MGM musicals, and in virtually every one of those films, the practice has been decried and praised for how fully it interrupts the films’ narrative flow.


Hurrah, Scorsese recreated a classic flaw of old movies. Well, yes, but the point here as in the rest of the film is what that reveals about the film culture he was working in and the film culture he loved from his youth. That’s what I meant by “decontextualised atmosphere”: in what was very clearly the director’s intent (even before he confirmed it in the DVD intro), NY,NY is a study in how extra-false the agreeable fiction of the musical looks when it’s set in a version of the city that isn’t a fairy tale (if I can have a moment of pretension, I’d like to argue that the title of the film isn’t really saying “New York City, NY”, but pointing out the two New Yorks – one that glitters on MGM soundstages, one that’s greasy and dirty and mean in the real world). The effect is twofold: the first and more obvious is how it calls attention to the ways in which those wonderful old pictures were a package of lies, admittedly lies that we’ve all agreed are lies and we watch them in full knowledge that we’re watching lies and that’s part of the appeal of the film, but it’s still a jolt, and not at all a bad one, to really just sit down and think about what it means that we all agree to admire those lies for two hours while we watch Judy Garland sing on streets that don’t exist. The second, and perhaps more interesting effect is that it suggests that Scorsese’s milieu of casual realism – a milieu he shared with almost all the important American filmmakers of the period – is just as much a fictional construct. I mean, if we can make Robert De Niro an MGM musical character, what does that say about Taxi Driver?



Noel Murray for The Onion AV Club:

In the narrative line of ’70s-era “New Hollywood,” Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York usually registers as a cautionary bump, like Steven Spielberg’s 1941 or Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Those films are supposed to represent the hubris of the movie brats, and show how they squandered a golden opportunity to make personal filmmaking the new mainstream. That’s not entirely fair, even though it’s true that New York, New York doesn’t really work. Scorsese attempts to inject loose improvisation into the overt artificiality of a Hollywood musical, and lets the former overwhelm the latter, while the movie’s sour love story between on-the-rise singer Liza Minnelli and on-the-slide saxophonist Robert De Niro proves too unstable to support Scorsese’s formal experimentation.


Scorsese had balanced old-fashioned melodrama and gritty realism before, in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but New York, New York ups the theatricality a couple hundred percent, as De Niro and Minnelli bicker in fields of fake snow and fake trees, and De Niro kicks against the walls of flashy nightclubs whose décor is unable to contain him. De Niro’s character is too unlikable, and Minnelli is too far out of her element in the improv scenes, but New York, New York contains plenty of amazing sequences, starting with the opening 20 minutes, which contains long tracking shots through busy frames, as a hundred miniature stories play out in the background. Minnelli comes into her own later in the film, during musical numbers like the dreamy, effusive “Happy Endings.” Even the excessive naturalism leads to moments like De Niro’s telling half-compliment to Minnelli: “I’m very proud of you, in a way.” Without the lessons learned from New York, New York‘s daring missteps and sporadic brilliance, Scorsese arguably wouldn’t have gone on to make the masterpieces that followed.


Roger Ebert:

Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York never pulls itself together into a coherent whole, but if we forgive the movie its confusions we’re left with a good time. In other words: Abandon your expectations of an orderly plot, and you’ll end up humming the title song. The movie’s a vast, rambling, nostalgic expedition back into the big band era, and a celebration of the considerable talents of Liza Minnelli and Robert De Niro.


De Niro comes on as certifiably loony from the start, and some of the movie’s best scenes are counterpoint between his clowning and her rather touching acceptance of it. Maybe because he’s really shy underneath, he likes to overact in social situations. He’s egotistical, self-centered, inconsiderate, and all sorts of other things she should leave him because of, and there are times when the Minnelli character is so heroically patient that it’s gotta be love. The movie doesn’t really explore the nuances of their personalities, though; the characters are seen mostly by their surfaces, and they inhabit a cheerfully phony Hollywood back-lot New York. Scorsese, who knows how to shoot New York in California so it looks real (see Mean Streets), is going for a frankly movie feel with his sets and decors, and especially with his colors, which tend toward lurid rotogravure.


The look is right for the movie’s musical scenes, and there are a lot of them: We start with a loving re-creation of V-J Day, with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra playing all the obligatory standards and De Niro trying with desperate zeal to pick up Minnelli. And then maybe half of the movie from then on will be music, mostly very good music (the movie’s new songs deserve comparison with the old standards), and wonderfully performed. That Liza Minnelli has not been making an annual musical for the last decade is our loss; she’s hauntingly good and so much more, well, human than Barbra Streisand.


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