Scorsese and De Niro on the set of New York, New York.
I don’t know why, but until a few weeks ago I had never seen this movie. This makes no sense: Scorsese, De Niro, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The King of Comedy. So many masterpieces of film. So many iconic performances. It’s not even that I’d heard that New York, New York was a bad movie, it’s just a movie that no one seems to talk about. And it’s a musical. Scorsese? De Niro? A musical? And Liza Minelli. What the hell is Liza Minelli doing in a Scorsese film? Maybe the film was just a result of Scorsese’s own excesses during this period. One of those crazy things that happened but is best not to be spoken of. After enjoying the recent phenomenon that is La La Land (2016), I heard BBC film critic Mark Kermode mention in his glowing review of the 14 time Oscar Nominated film, the “very underrated” New York, New York. Intrigued, I took the plunge.
I first watched the original theatrical release of the film. Hmmmm. Two undiscovered artists, trying to breakthrough, struggling to balance their own career ambitions with their relationship. Sound familiar? Set in post World War II NYC, the film tackles many of the themes of La La Land, but has a much darker tone. I thought it was an interesting film. I enjoyed it, but the character of Johnny (De Niro) was a stumbling block for me. He is so unlikable. For most of the film, his behaviour towards Francine (Minelli) is quite despicable. Then, two incredibly powerful scenes in the third act give the character depth, and we feel compassion for him. On first watching this came too late for me. I spent the next few days talking to people about this “interesting” film. I didn’t say it was a good film, I thought it was flawed, and thought Scorsese sometimes really gets his female characters spectacularly wrong. The conflict of super-real acting against a background of old Hollywood, sometimes stylised studio sets also troubled me. I wanted to see New York, not a studio set. Despite all of this, something called me back to the film, so I gave it another try.
This time I watched the extended version. I loved it. The knowledge of what was to come for Johnny in the third act enabled me to better understand the character. De Niro is phenomenal in this film. He is funny, scary, intense, flippant and unpredictable all at the same time. Minelli is unbelievable, matching the heavyweight De Niro punch for punch. You cannot take your eyes off the screen, their presence is magnetic, their dysfunctional relationship as painful as it is addictive. The music in the film is beautiful. All of the big musical numbers belong to Minelli. No one else could have played this part. Her transformation from uncertain, vulnerable wall flower to powerhouse performer is transfixing. The emotion in some of her performances brought tears to my eyes. I then watched the extended version again, and loved it even more. It’s one of my favourite films, and certainly my favourite musical. An undiscovered modern classic.
Scorsese himself has said that he is conflicted about the film. Obviously proud of the piece, he states that he made mistakes by not allowing enough time for improvisational rehearsals before shooting key scenes. He believes that had he not made New York, New York, and learn the lessons he did in the process, then he would not have been able to make Raging Bull (1980). Strange as it is to disagree with the film maker, I would put both films in the same category of masterpiece.
New York, New York was a box office flop on its original release in 1977. It was released one week after Star Wars, and must have seemed so dated and irrelevant compared to George Lucas’s genre defining sci-fi epic. Following the success of the title song, made popular by legendary crooner Frank Sinatra, and in an attempt to recoup some of the bloated budget, the extended version was given a cinema release a few years later. A forgotten phenomenon, the extended version of New York, New York is essential viewing for any film fan.