It’s been a long time since Martin Scorsese has made anything worth watching, but back in the day, he couldn’t make anything you could afford to miss. Starting with Mean Streets, Scorsese was a man with a mission, churning out powerful cinema that fused artsy new wave and New York grit: Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Taxi Driver, and then… New York, New York.
Well, that last one, not so much. After kicking the world in the nuts with the twisted urban portrayal of Taxi Driver, no one expected- or really wanted- to watch a romantic, nostalgic Hollywood musical about post-WWII New York, especially one that ran two and a half hours… even if it starred two of the hottest actors in America at the time- Robert De Niro and Liza Minelli. Some films happen to come out at the right time and capture the world’s Zeitgeist, speaking for an entire generation. New York, New York seemed to do the exact opposite.
But the movie is wonderful. It’s beautifully crafted, self-consciously artificial, steeped in Old Hollywood mores- a total fantasy full of volatile men, sad, beautiful women, and music. Lots and lots of music. The jazz is legit, though- from old Big Band standards to hot Harlem nights to the movie’s world-famous theme song, exploited by Sinatra and played at every Yankees game ever since, the music drives the story from start to finish. Like All That Jazz, New York, New York is a tale of musicians and the music word that uses the musical genre organically as its frame.
Minelli and De Niro, though… in the end, it’s all about them. The chemistry, the weirdly improvised dialogue (weird because the rest of the film is so clearly staged and planned), their revisionist takes on old movie archetypes… it was all too much for audiences to process in 1977. Through his two leads, Scorsese fashions a story that is just as much an homage as a critique of Movieland’s golden era and the values it put forth. The subtle racism and not-so-subtle sexism rampant throughout the story juxtapose themselves with the warm and exquisite cinematography to give us a charmingly told tale that dips into the darker aspects of the human psyche, yet remains a true romance. It’s a typical Scorsese movie, except with sugar sprinkled on top.
From today’s vantage point, New York, New York fits nicely within a string of four De Niro / Scorsese classics about disturbed individuals told in four very different ways, starting with Taxi Driver. Raging Bull gives us Boxer De Niro in a stark, black and white world; King of Comedy gives us Taxi Driver as a social satire. But sandwiched in the middle sits this forgotten and rarely seen musical gem, waiting to be rediscovered.
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