PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Reviews

Scorsese's Age of Swing: 'New York, New York'

An artifice sometimes too beautiful. It's as if Al Jolson romanced Doris Day.


New York, New York

Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Liza Minnelli, Lionel Stander
Distributor: MGM
Rated: PG
Release date: 2011-06-07

A ticker tape falls on V-J Day 1945 as crowds of obvious film extras roil about in a Times Square that’s too clean and with curbs too high to be the real thing. Big band music swings in the background. Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) wanders the streets in search of a girl, any girl will do. He finds Francine (liza Minnelli) and the story -- and the pain -- begins.

Doyle is a huckster and showman, a sweet, tough working class white guy trying to channel the street swagger of jazz and the blues. Francine is somebody he thinks he can make beautiful music with, both literally and figuratively. Its as if Al Jolson romanced Doris Day. Their passionate doom becomes the dark undertow of a film that too many audiences and too many critics read as a director giving up his early promise for sunshine, sweetness and mid-century nostalgia.

New York, New York is one of the stranger films in Martin Scorsese’s oeuvre. He released Mean Streets in 1973, his first exploration of his ethnic roots in connection with the seamy New York City of the '70s and his first collaboration with Robert De Niro. In 1976, he looked underneath the mean streets and into his beloved city’s dark heart with Taxi Driver.

New York, New York became Scorsese’s vanity piece in 1977, and the question became, “What the hell happened to Scorsese? So sad.” The film received a decidedly mixed critical reaction and flopped hard at the box office. Scorsese infamously fell into cocaine addiction in the disastrous aftermath, only to be saved in 1980 by De Niro and Raging Bull (although during this time he managed to put together the first of his many achievements in documenting American rock 'n' roll with The Last Waltz).

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?

Audiences, and not a few critics, failed to recognize Scorsese’s effort to create an ironic artifice. In this disc’s accompanying audio commentary, the director makes the point again and again that New York New York is “a Hollywood film” in the sense of a film that makes use of all the artificial conventions of midcentury Hollywood. Jimmy Doyle makes a call from a pay phone as a train rolls by, an image that is clearly a painted backdrop. One of the film's most memorable scenes has Doyle and Francine riding in the back of a cab and, as in every mid-century studio film, the front of the cab seems to disappear and the faux scenery whizzes along behind them.

Of course, the film is perhaps most famous for the titular song, performed by Minnelli as the show- stopping closing number, the big finish. The confusion over the song’s origin and history is perhaps the best evidence that Scorsese successfully fashioned the artificial construct he had hoped. Performed by Minnelli in one of the film’s more memorable moments, most everyone connects the now classic number with Frank Sinatra who recorded it and performed it seemingly ad infinitum in the '80s.

Most interesting of all, I suspect nine out of ten people aren’t aware of the song’s connection with the film but would believe it is of older vintage, maybe the immediate post-World War II era. This says to me that Scorsese pulled it off, creating a meta-narrative about the '40s with a soundscape that fools us to this day

The pleasure of this new Blu-Ray edition is found mostly in Scorsese’s commentary. As Jimmy and Francine’s relationship develops, Scorsese puts on a clinic of mid-century film knowledge. In several minutes, he references ten to 20 films, and we get an understanding of what he was trying to do with New York, New York.

We learn, for example, that 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.

Other than audio commentary, the disc contains deleted and alternate scenes. These are essential viewing as they contain some of De Niro’s improvisational work, including what looks like to me a much better version of De Niro chasing down Minnelli in the fake snow than what made it into the film.

The special features also include a two part making of feature. Its not really clear why this is broken into two features, but both contain voluminous detail about the film, especially in regard to production. Unfortunately, too much of the material simply repeats what we get in the audio commentary. Much more appealing is an included interview with Liza Minnelli, where she provides a retrospective on her career, growing up in Hollywood, and working with Scorsese and De Niro.

In his introduction included to the film, Scorsese makes clear that this effort is as much a valentine to his beloved New York City as to some golden age of Hollywood. He points out that the studio musicals were often besotted with Gotham and should be read as “alternate universes” where the Big City became its truest, transcendent self.

This isn’t a film for everyone. Its almost too beautiful an artifice, at times. But for Scorsese devotees, it’s a treat to see the work of a genius who had already made some of the most important aesthetic documents of the late 20th century as he steps back, dances a Lindy Hop, and gets back on the road to all those raging bulls and goodfellas that lay ahead of him.

7

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.

Books

Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.

Music

Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.

Books

Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.

Film

In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.

Music

The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.

Television

The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.

Music

The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller
Music

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.

Music

When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.

Music

20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.

Music

The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.

Books

Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.

Music

Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."

Music

50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.

Film

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.

Film

The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.

Music

Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.