New York, New York

Director: Martin Scorsese.
Screenplay: Mardik Martin, Earl Mac Rauch.
Starring: Robert DeNiro, Liza Minnelli, Lionel Stander, Barry Primus, Georgie Auld, Mary Kay Place, George Memmoli, Dick Miller, Clarence Clemons, Steven Prince, Don Calfa, Frank Sivero, Diahnne Abbott.

“Do I look like a gentleman to you in this shirt and these pants?”

A lot has been said about the collaborative work of Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro but the one that is often forgotten about or even frowned upon is their work on 1977’s New York, New York. Admittedly, the lack of financial success or interest at the box-office hasn’t helped the film’s reputation but on reflection this lengthy and ambitious musical often impresses. To be fair, much of this will depend on whether or not the individual viewer enjoys the music and period in which it’s set. But if you do, then there’s much to admire.

Plot: On the day that WWII ends, Jimmy Doyle (Robert DeNiro), an egotistical and smooth-talking saxophonist meets lounge singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and they embark upon a strained relationship while trying to juggle it with their music careers and hitting the big time.

From the opening bold credit sequence to the big brass band playing as V-J Day is celebrated, Scorsese sets his intentions from the outset. It’s apparent early on that this is a big film with big sets and even bigger ambition. The look and feel of 1940’s America is very well captured and Scorsese is not afraid to be bold in his approach. In some senses, you could say that this was the equivalent of Francis Ford Coppola’s One From The Heart. Not only is it Scorsese’s closest attempt at a musical but they were both released within a few years of each other and both were also very experimental and ambitious. Added to which, they both received a much maligned reception and somewhat tarnished the reputation of these two colossal filmmakers that owned the 70’s decade. A further comparison is that the two films have been unfairly judged and are actually very strong pieces of work that will probably appeal more now than they did then.

New York, New York certainly wasn’t without its production problems and apparently suffered from a lack of structure on the script which led to DeNiro and Liza Minnelli having to improvise most of their lines. This caused havoc in the editing process as it was difficult to construct a streamlined narrative. In fact, the original cut of the film was supposedly 4hours 30mins before being trimmed by a full 2hours. Personally, I didn’t find the narrative disjointed at all and didn’t find a problem immersing myself in it’s epic romanticism. Perhaps Scorsese was too preoccupied with the visual aspects of the film to focus on the script and in this respect the film is a gorgeous success. Boris Leven’s production design is grandly effective and Laszlo Kovacs compliments it with some very fine cinematography. The musical numbers are also impressively arranged by Ralph Burns and the song “Theme from New York, New York” by John Kander and Fred Ebb (written specifically for the film) has went on to become the most synonymous song for the city itself after a cover version by Frank Sinatra.

Despite its failure at the box-office, this is still an influential endeavour from Scorsese and DeNiro and it certainly didn’t fail through lack of effort. It’s no surprise to hear that DeNiro (with his usual method approach) actually learned to play the saxophone for his role while Scorsese poured so much into the film that its financial failure and poor reception drove him to drugs and a depression which DeNiro had to haul him out of for Raging Bull three years later.

An unashamed homage to the technicolor musicals of the 40’s and 50’s, this Scorsese/DeNiro pairing is a dynamic evocation of the times. Considered a misfire by many, it makes for interesting viewing now that the furore has calmed. It’s looked upon as the weakest of their magnificent collaborations but it’s still a spectacular change of direction and certainly not as bad as its original reception would suggest.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Much of the movie was shot on the same soundstages as the great musicals of the 1940s. As a result, Liza Minnelli was haunted by memories of her mother, Judy Garland, throughout the shoot.

17 Responses to “New York, New York”

  1. I think I love this movie already and I haven’t even seen it. Your enthusiasm for DeNiro/Scorsese collaborations really is infectious man. I am so ashamed to say I have seen so few of them. (Please don’t look at my Letterboxd Watch List lol, it’ll drive you mad!!)

    I really enjoy the insight re: how poorly this movie was received and what it did emotionally to Scorsese. That’s crazy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Worth checking out, man. It was hated upon release but I think expectations were huge for another Bob & Marty film. This is a slight deviation from their other work but it’s still quite impressive. Granted, I’m not one for love stories or musicals but there’s still no denying the magnitude of it. I really think it deserves a reappraisal.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I liked it when I saw it. I remember the misfire and lack of interest when it came out, but I didn’t care. I love the time frame and the music and appreciated the homage. It really felt like historical fiction, which is my thing. I was utterly transported.
    I didn’t know that Scorsese was adversely affected by it. I need to read a bio on the man, methinks. BTW, nice to see you active on your blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excelllent review Mark and great to see a shout out for One From the Heart as well. Both movies are terrific musicals and very underrated.

    Liked by 1 person

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