New York, New York – 1977 – dir. Martin Scorsese

The legendary Martin Scorcese likes to dabble in different genres: urban angst and alienation in Taxi Driver, sports in Raging Bull,  mobsters in The Departed, mystery/thrillers in Shutter Island. Here, with New York New York is his loving tribute to Hollywood musicals of the 30s and 40s.

Headlining his film are Robert De Niro as saxophone player, Jimmy Doyle and Liza Minnelli as big band singer, Francine Evans, both up-and-coming musicians hoping to make it to the top.

Though not a hit at the box office when it was released in 1977 (Scorsese felt he had failed at what he was trying to do), New York, New York fascinates, and if indeed the director failed, he failed gloriously.

What fascinates most is that a great majority of the dialogue is improvised; the actors fleshed it out as they went along. That whole pick-up scene, for instance, at the beginning, in the nightclub, between Jimmy and Francine, is completely unscripted.  All the actors were told was that the guy is trying to pick up the girl. Minnelli says she was flummoxed by the lack of direction, totally bewildered by what was being asked of her. Watch her get stuck saying, “no”, “no”, “no” to De Niro’s advances out of sheer terror until she realized it was working, and ran with it. Considering that she and De Niro had no script to work from, it is amazing what they came up with. “I can take a hint.”   “Can you take a hike?”

At times, the movie’s upside is also its downside; it is so unrehearsed, we grow impatient with its silences, its burps, while the actors fish for what to say, where to take it. Still, with two performers as gifted as these two are, the journey is one of discovery, a ride we are happy to take with them.

New York, New York is deliberately over-stylized, even hyper-stylized. Scorsese meant for it to be a throwback to the Hollywood of Minnelli’s mother and father. In casting her, (a brilliant piece of casting), he knows he has Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli’s daughter here, and that audiences are going to have them, and the classic movie musicals they made, in mind.   However, this movie is not the sugary-sweet happy ending carbon copy of old-time Hollywood fare. Scorsese wants to take his players and the genre to a much darker place; for this is a story of a match made in Hell, of an ambitious singer who knows how good she is and a story of two people who might love each other but who cannot get out of the way of each other’s dreams and demons, especially De Niro’s.  In Jimmy Doyle, De Niro creates another of his mercurial screen heels: a micromanaging control freak with a drug monkey on his back and a temper as big as his talent. Romance beats beneath his bushwa, his braggadocio. He means well and we can see he cares for Minnelli. It’s the hothead in him, the self-destructive streak, and the drugs the music world gives him such easy access to that prove to be his undoing. His charm is obvious, but he is too stupid to get out of his own way and when one chance after another presents itself for redemption, he chooses narcissism, jealousy and bitterness instead.

De Niro built a screen career playing these mercurial men; his character can go from 0 to 100 in the blink of an eye, and 70s moviegoers (esp. females) thrilled to his “You don’t know what I’m going to do from minute-to-minute here but stick with me and I guarantee I’ll take you on one of the most exciting rides of your life!”   De Niro was dangerous in the tradition of Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. You know he’s going to explode; you just don’t know when his volcano’s going to pop. His energy is so hot, he can get an inferno going with just one look. Watch him ignite when a bouncer throws him out of a club, exploding more than the white hot lights he smashes with his legs and feet. A firecracker of an actor, he more than deserves his place as one of movie history’s live grenades.

Liza Minnelli more than holds her own against him; her signature vulnerability (she was a master at portraying tender bewilderment) making both her and us wish this match could somehow work. From the very start, we know (and Minnelli knows) this is not the type of guy she should ever hook up with but she cannot resist his punk-ass swagger, his punk-ass duds, the smirking gum-chewing grin. His confidence sweeps her off her feet, and us and the movie with it.

This is Minnelli’s own version of her mother’s A Star Is Born, the iconic tale of one performer whose star eclipses the star of the man she loves. And she aces it; balancing electrifying star power with human frailty; she loves her man but realizes all too clearly they mix like oil and water.

New York, New York is about the rigors and unpredictability of a musician’s life, the rigors of road touring, and the pain of a relationship gone terribly wrong. For Scorsese means this to be a re-invention of the conventional music bio, the antithesis of movies Judy Garland, Vincente Minnelli and their kind made. This time out, love isn’t enough. No happy endings here, folks…

New York, New York gets the period right: lush sets, glitzy costumes, the sparkle and shine of big bands and jazz. Scorsese captures exactly the world of musicmakers with all the glamour but all the sleaze, too, the one not being able to exist without the other. There is a scene that finds the two stars in a snow-covered forest saying a painful goodbye to each other. The actors are not the only characters in the shot; the set is the third character here, as much of an attraction and a symbol as they are, glorious in the artifice of the old Hollywood it harkens back to while making it abundantly clear that all of them — actors, emotions, scenery are fake, that none of it is real and none of it ever was.  It is a shattering, bittersweet moment. Scorsese is ringing a death bell for the Hollywood fantasy machine.

Treats do abound:  the beloved character actor, Lionel Stander, who had only to open his cement mixer mouth to evoke all of New York City, is here, as a booking agent. And Mary Kay Place of the  “Mary Hartman Mary Hartman” t.v. show, plays a girl singer De Niro has an affair with.

One scene says it all about New York, New York;  De Niro, boiling mad because Minnelli is more of a success than he is, is playing to the crowd, and when she tries to join him onstage, he uses music to blow anger at her, to blow her away. The music becomes his fury. The music is both Creator and Destroyer and that is what Scorsese wants us to know:  music exalts the culture we live in but the price paid for that exaltation by those who make it is way too high.

The years have been kind to New York, New York and have transformed it from a piece of experimental coal into a dark, shiny diamond.  Better entertainment than this is hard these days to find…

Leo Racicot Written by: