All great directors probably wish they could “take one back.” Francis Ford Coppola is probably still smarting over Jack, and Steven Spielberg clearly can’t successfully defend his weak wartime comedy 1941. Hitchcock had his half-hearted efforts, and names as famous as Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, and Federico Fellini all made mistakes within their otherwise illustrious careers. Still, it’s hard to judge where something like New York, New York fits into this version of auteur theory. On the one hand, Martin Scorsese handled the deft period details of his musical throwback with style and substance. On the other hand, his post-modern tendencies toward stark realism and improvisation throw the already depressing song and dance fest into even further confusion.
Robert DeNiro is Jimmy Doyle, a big band trumpet player at the end of World War II. Slick and a little suspicious, he seems content to play the field and leave behind a bevy of comely casualties. All of that changes when he meets young torch singer Francine Evans (recent Oscar winner Liza Minelli). The two start a rocky relationship. She wants a commitment. He claims to be “married” to his music. They argue. They make up. They eventually get married and she gets pregnant. When it looks like things just can’t work out, the two split. Jimmy becomes a respected jazz musician, while Francine finds fame as a pop chanteuse. Their fates collide when a song composed by the former – the ethereal “New York, New York” – becomes a massive hit for the latter, sparking the possibility for a reconciliation.
In order to understand the less than favorable reception received by New York, New York, you have to recognize where both Scorsese and the post-modern movement were in 1977. Coppola had delivered the staggering one-two punch of The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, and even found time to tackle the complicated Conversation in between. He was now off in the Philippines making his proposed magnum opus, Apocalypse Now. George Lucas had literally invented big screen nostalgia with his amazing look back, American Graffiti while Spielberg’s bigger splash, Jaws, had led to the revelatory Close Encounters of the Third Kind. All around, names once considered the ‘bad boys’ of young cinema were taking control. They called the shots, and got the opportunities that few, outside their fraternity, could even dare dream of.
For his part, Scorsese was sitting on a trio of commercial and critical hits – Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver. If anyone could write and then punch their own ticket, it was this East Coast maverick. With clout came carte blanche, and with said leeway the ability to realize a lifelong ambition. Scorsese was, and remains, a student of old school Hollywood, of the spectacle and sweep that came from backlot studio settings and bigger than life stars. He always wanted to mimic said aesthetic within a modern setting, giving classic character types his own special brand of street savvy sass. With New York, New York, he could accomplish several things. He could turn the big screen into a creative canvas where art and artifice could happily comingle. He also had a chance to prove a genre, long given up for dead, was not really six feet under but merely waiting for the right moment to be revitalized.
Sadly, this movie was not it (in two more years, Bob Fosse would deliver All That Jazz and address that problem once and for all). For all its formalism and experimentation, New York, New York fails one of the quantum aspects of the onscreen musical – it provides little to no escape. When Minelli sings, especially the title track and the classic “But the World Goes Round,” it’s like a giant weight has been lifted off the film. All the bickering and sneering between the characters vanishes in the one thing a showtune has over all other forms of expression. However, Scorsese is not just hear to show fantastic artists and musicians at the top of their game (he was saving that for The Last Waltz). Instead, he wants to balance the make believe of the Depression era relic with the artform circa the mid ’70s…and he just can’t.
His leads really don’t help much. Minelli, for all she accomplishes here, is really a stage icon. She understands the smaller medium of movies, but can’t quite seem to bring her outsized facade down the necessary notches. She’s always just one beat bigger than the moment requires. Besides, she has almost no chemistry with her co-star. On the other hand, DeNiro is very good at playing the careless, abusive heel – almost too good. His Method-ology turns the often plastic plotline into something far more sinister than it needs to be. When he’s onstage with his saxophone, Jimmy is a joy (DeNiro actually ‘learned’ to play the instrument for the role). When he’s outside the spotlight, the character is a chore to endure.
At least the filmmaking is fault free. Showing the kind of creative chutzpah he would use to drive later efforts like Raging Bull, Goodfellas, and most recently, Shutter Island, New York, New York relishes in its lack of realism. Falseness becomes its own device, especially during the magical musical interludes. As part of the Blu-ray’s bonus features, Scorsese makes it very clear where he believed his motives were. Had he wanted to make an authentic reflection of the time, a true image of Manhattan and the night club scene circa the late ’40s, he wouldn’t have manufactured such a brazen bit of phoniness. The director knows time and place. This was his attempt to conjure magic where none existed before. All issues with the inner workings aside, New York, New York does a terrific job of referencing its influences. Sadly, it seems to do little else.
Unlike many in his bold brotherhood, New York, New York did not derail Scorsese. It did not undermine his spirit, but instead, argued for an even more aggressive approach. That response would become a landmark of the 1980s, a statement that still resonates three decades after its release. Raging Bull was born out of the love of old movies, out of Scorsese’s decision to meld the lessons he learned on New York, New York with the neighborhood – and the nasty characters – he knew all too well. From then on, the filmmaker played by his own unique rules, going from comedy to religious epic to thriller to gangsters with nary an aesthetic blink. For some, a movie mistake of this magnitude would be one “to take back.” In this case, New York, New York was the next step forward. It was just hard to see that at the time.