New York, New York (1977)
Written by Mardik Martin & Earl Mac Rauch
Music by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Directed by Martin Scorsese
If you were like me, growing up, you just assumed the song “New York, New York” was just some old song from back in the 1930s/1940s. However, I discovered that it was initially written for Martin Scorsese’s musical film of the same title in 1977. It makes sense that I might be tricked into thinking it was an older piece of music as it was written by Broadway legends Kander & Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago). They have a pitch-perfect ear for the sound of Broadway and a specific period, so the song feels like it’s just been around forever. The problems came from having the wrong mix of elements, Scorsese trying to blend ingredients of harsh realism with something that clearly made out of love for the golden age of Hollywood musicals.
On V-J Day, as New York City celebrates, saxophone player Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) meets USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minelli). She’s lonely but doesn’t give in to the smarmy, arrogant pick-up lines of Jimmy. They keep crossing paths, and she eventually helps him snag a regular gig performing at a club. The owner wants them as a double-act because of her excellent singing. Francine gets pulled away to tour with her regular band. Jimmy pursues, realizing he’s in a type of love with her, more admiration which becomes jealousy for her talent. The two end up getting a rushed marriage, and Francine gets pregnant quickly after. Jimmy’s volatile temper creates large rifts in their relationship, especially as her star is rising. All the while, Francine is trying to make a song out of tune Jimmy plays over and over. As life pulls them apart, they eventually reunite for the song’s debut that will make her a star.
New York, New York looks absolutely beautiful. Scorsese leans into the artifice of soundstage sets from the 1940s so that the world has an almost fairytale version of New York laid out before us. And the star of this show is undoubtedly Liza Minelli. Through the lens of popular media, I was taught to see Minelli as a sort of washed-up joke, and her last twenty years have certainly been tumultuous. This film reminds audiences what a fucking incredible talent she is. The last twenty minutes of the film are just a non-stop barrage of how damn talented Minelli is, belting out a medley of songs from an in-universe Broadway musical leading into the show-stopping New York, New York debut performance. This is one of the all-time great musical performances in a movie, encapsulating Francine’s hard path to get to where she is.
The movie’s bad parts are the ridiculous runtime (almost three hours) and Robert De Niro. De Niro just plays such an unlikable asshole who gets way too much screentime. I’d rather the story spotlighted Francine more and made his Jimmy a background antagonist. He’s not interesting and just gets more annoying as the film goes on, making her life miserable. The film also needed to be cut down tremendously. There’s no reason the picture should clock in at just under three hours. The story doesn’t warrant that length and scope. A tighter two hour or less runtime would have been perfect, and trimming back Jimmy would have helped.
I also don’t understand what Scorsese is trying to say about Hollywood musicals. It’s clear he loves them, but he also seems to be trying to blend the genre with the “realism” of the 1970s. Scorsese is incredibly talented but somewhere along the way, what he was trying to do got lost in the mix. I think he could have accomplished mixing these ideas with a tighter script and another run through on the characters. I never understood why Francine would end up with Jimmy. He is not charming, not once. He’s just a jerk from scene one and gets worse as the story goes on.
This would not be Scorsese’s roughest patch; that would happen in the 1980s. However, before we get to that fascinating slump, we have one of the director’s most outstanding projects up next: Raging Bull.