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.

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