New York, New York is sort of an odd film out in Scorsese’s filmography, coming in between his two greatest films: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Critics don’t like it and people don’t like it. Wikipedia is sort of vague about how the film’s failure affected Scorsese himself, but suffice it to say that he was not in a good place after it was completed. He would need Raging Bull to save his career. Also, this film is a musical, and the mere idea of Scorsese doing a musical is just weird. It’s so weird, I had to watch it, and I’m glad I did. Someone says to you “Scorsese musical” and it seems like a totally foreign concept that cannot be comprehended. But New York, New York is exactly that, a movie that had a lot of Scorsese’s normal themes but set in the environment of a technicolor musical from the 40s or 50s. It’s very interesting to see these two seemingly opposite things come together, and I think it works fairly well.
New York, New York tells the story of two musicians: Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), a saxophone player, and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli), a singer. The film opens on VJ day with everyone celebrating, or at least trying to. Jimmy is trying to pick up Francine, but she’s not having any of it. At first it’s kind of funny how persistent Jimmy is, but it doesn’t stay that way for long. It actually gets kind of scary, revealing a darker side to Jimmy that will come out even more later on. Eventually he goes away, but definitely not for good. He meets Francine the next morning accidentally and they go to his audition together, which turns out to be a good thing for both of them. The club owner auditioning Jimmy doesn’t really like him until Francine sings with him, so he hires them both. From there on, Francine gets to know him better and they fall in love.
It’s definitely not a normal romance though, because Jimmy is so strange. He doesn’t fully appreciate her at times, and at others he’s very possessive of her. They eventually get married, but the wedding ceremony itself isn’t even shown. I don’t even remember what prompted him to do this, but Francine does something that Jimmy finds attractive in some way, tells her to get her coat, drives her to a judge’s house in the middle of the night, and asks the judge to marry them. What? That was basically everyone’s reaction to what Jimmy is doing. It doesn’t come completely out of nowhere, but pretty dang close. The two of them fight because Francine wants to think this over, and Jimmy doesn’t see what the problem is. He wants to marry her so that should be good enough for everybody, right? There’s a gap in the narrative after that, so it’s unclear whether they got married that same night or if they waited until another time.
They are both touring with the same band at this point, with Jimmy playing the sax and Francine singing. Francine’s singing is getting a lot more attention though, and it’s increasingly clear that he’s resenting her. Even when Jimmy takes over the band and becomes the leader, everyone seems to appreciate Francine more, but Jimmy won’t allow her to have any input during rehearsals. When Francine becomes pregnant, she decides she doesn’t want to be on the road anymore so she leaves the band and starts working on recordings in a studio. That way she can just stay home, but Jimmy won’t give up his music to be with her. She understands and the two go their separate ways. Does Jimmy cheat on her when she’s not there? Yup. Saw that coming from a mile away.
During this time, Francine gets offered a record deal. Jimmy’s handed over the band to the piano guy because it’s been doing so terrible. He mostly plays in jazz clubs down in Harlem, not making it very big. Meanwhile, Francine gets a record deal and starts making it very big. She eventually gets into movies and then she is on her way as they say. Leading up to this, Jimmy is getting increasingly resentful of her and the baby. In fact, it is during an argument of theirs that Francine goes into labor. She has the baby, and names it Jimmy after his father. Jimmy Sr can’t even bring himself to look at the boy. He can’t handle the responsibility, and he especially reacts to the fact that Francine named the boy after him. First he takes it out on her for not consulting him, but really he is just so insecure that some kid is going to have him for a father that he has to leave.
In the intervening years, he gets his own jazz club and makes it big that way. Francine is now a big movie star and their son is about ten years old or so. They never really get back together; Scorsese flaunting those genre conventions! At this point I thought it might be better for them not to be together anyway; they can’t really deal with each other that well. They’re pretty cute when they’re getting along, but those moments are few and far between. I didn’t really feel like I was being cheated out of my genre conventions here; I was totally fine with it.
Now I know you are wondering about the music in this thing. It’s a musical, after all. Most of the good stuff kicks in towards the end. There’s jazz music playing throughout, and there aren’t so much musical numbers in the film as there are characters performing or rehearsing as part of the story. It’s not spontaneous, except for one goofy guy on VJ day but that doesn’t really count as a number. He just dances around for a couple of seconds. This film is heavy on the singing, and even the instrumentals, given that Jimmy plays the sax and Francine sings. Makes sense. There’s not much dancing, and definitely no spectacular dancing on a large scale. So, as I said, the songs at the end are the best. The song that Francine records and is a big hit for her is “But the World Goes ‘Round” and I really liked that song. Minnelli really sells it too, but that’s pretty much a given with her. Next you have the big production number. It’s fantastic because it’s so cheesy. It didn’t feel disrespectful to musicals, mostly due to Minnelli I’m guessing, but it was definitely making fun of some of those cheesy genre conventions. It’s great though, and I’m pretty sure part of it was inspired by West Side Story, but I might be reaching a bit. The last song is the title song, and if you’ve been going through this review wondering if New York, New York has that “New York, New York” in it, it does. Jimmy writes it in the story and Francine performs it at the end. Minnelli sells it again! Not all of the songs in the film are originals, but I’m fairly certain that the ones I’ve mentioned are. I know “New York, New York” is. The music was done by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the guys that did Chicago and Cabaret.
In case I did not emphasize it enough, I was really impressed with Minnelli here. She has to play a way… nicer character than in Cabaret and she pulls it off pretty well. Best of all, she holds her own against De Niro, one of the greatest actors ever. De Niro is of course good here as well, playing the type of guy he usually plays in Scorsese movies. You never know when he is going to loose it. He’s not quite as scary as Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, but Jimmy’s definitely got shades of those guys in him. Like Travis, he can be pretty lovable at time too because he’s so weird. It seems strange at first to put this character in a musical, but doing it makes me realize that Scorsese’s not too far off. Men can be jerks in musicals too, but sometimes I guess I don’t realize it because they’re dancing around and being charming at the same time. There’s a Fred and Ginger musical called Barkley’s of Broadway that’s actually kind of similar to this. Fred doesn’t appreciate Ginger enough so she leaves, but of course they get back together in the end. Scorsese’s not having any of that here. Also if you’re wondering whether De Niro sings at all: he does briefly in one scene. I’m pretty sure it’s actually him because he doesn’t sound that good (sorry Bobby). He’s pretty good at faking the saxophone though, but I don’t play the saxophone so I can’t definitively say.
New York, New York may not be the most compelling film on it’s own terms; the sets look and are really fake (intended by Scorsese as a comment on the genre, but he admits not everyone goes for it, including me), it’s a bit on the long side, and you have to wait for the end to get the best songs (the ones I liked the best anyway). It’s not like The Age of Innocence where I don’t think anybody has an excuse for not seeing just because it’s different. He is not as successful at branching out in New York, New York, but he gives it one heck of a try and I respect him for it. I almost wish he would try making an original movie musical again, but I doubt that’s ever going to happen because they’re not popular anymore and I don’t think he was too happy with how it turned out the first time. It was already kind of late for this in ’77. It’s a very interesting watch for those already interested in Scorsese and musicals, or even just one or the other.
“Start spreading the news…”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
***Edit 6 August 2014: There was a good reason why I thought De Niro was good at faking the sax; according to this article, he learned to play for the film. Being the method actor that he is, I feel like I should have realized this earlier. Apologies!