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New York, New York (1977)

February 25th, 2007 · 1 Comment

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With celebration in the streets following the end of World War II, Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro) enters a nightclub. He prowls through the party atmosphere and hits on every woman in sight. Jimmy has no one, and when he spots Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) alone, he hounds her mercilessly. She spurns his advances, but doesn’t walk out on him either.

When she bumps into him later in a hotel lobby, Francine discovers that Jimmy has run up bills all over town. She accompanies him to an audition, where she discovers that Jimmy is not just a deadbeat, he’s also a gifted tenor saxophonist. Jimmy almost blows his audition by arguing with the club manager, but Francine proves equally gifted musically, and saves him with her singing voice. The pair is hired as a “boy/girl act.”

Jimmy and Francine begin a romance, but she leaves to perform with a band on the road. Jimmy obsessively follows her, and Francine rewards his co-dependency by getting him a spot with the band. The couple tries to hold their relationship together as Francine’s career climbs, and Jimmy wrestles his inner demons.

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Directed by Martin Scorsese and written by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin, New York, New York was Scorsese’s $14 million homage to postwar Hollywood musicals. The color, framing and elaborate stages were inspired by the great MGM musicals of the late’40s and ’50s. The content was designed to be much darker in tone, to reflect the documentary realism Scorsese had explored so successfully in his own films. He referred to this as a “film noir musical.”

The movie went into production without a finished script, due to concert dates Liza Minnelli had already booked. Scorsese figured he could work the script out on the soundstage. DeNiro and Minnelli were asked to improvise virtually all of their dialogue, but free styling in the foreground quickly proved unmanageable with such complex staging going on in the background.

Word in the industry was that – with its extravagant musical numbers and hip, modern story – the film was going to be a masterpiece. Marcia Lucas, one of the film’s editors, boasted to her husband George while he was finishing his own movie, “New York, New York is a film for grownups. Yours is just a kid’s movie, and no one’s going to take it seriously.”

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One month after Star Wars began breaking box office records and blowing everything else off the screen, Scorsese’s “film for grownups” opened. It was a commercial and critical disappointment. Pauline Kael called it “an honest failure.” That summed up my feeling pretty well. The final scene has an emotional honesty and intelligence that I greatly admired, but up to that point, little else in this 163 minute experiment works.

Nothing about the film is sharp. “Dull” is a far better description. It’s overlong, the structure is flat, supporting characters non-existent, and unlike the classic Hollywood musicals or film noir, the dialogue has no life to it whatsoever. DeNiro is quick on his feet and has great instincts, but trying to improvise on a soundstage seems to cripple any creative energy the movie might have had, if, like Scorsese’s previous films, it had been shot on location.

New York, New York does boast standout camera movement and set design, and produced an exceptional theme, “New York, New York” by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Frank Sinatra recorded it in 1979, and it not only became one of his signature tunes, but perhaps the theme song for New York City as well, now played in Yankee Stadium at the end of every ballgame. But the film is academic, successful in terms of thinking, a failure at communicating much of anything emotionally.

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Tags: Concert · Music · Unconventional romance

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Jan // Jan 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm

    just saw this film today, amazing!

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