How many words can I think of to describe Martin Scorsese's 'New York, New York'? Too many. How about ambitious, audacious, misguided, muddled, searing, exhilarating, dull, fascinating, misunderstood? A box office failure upon its release in 1977, this jumbled yet strangely hypnotic homage to Golden Age Hollywood musicals has gained respect and appreciation over the ensuing 30-plus years, but still divides audiences and critics who debate its worth, artistry, and presentation. I consider myself a champion of the piece and feel it's one of Scorsese's most underrated works, yet even my feelings toward it fluctuate wildly with each viewing. As a musicals maven, I've always been sympathetic to Scorsese's vision and admiring of his execution and impeccable attention to detail, but I can't overlook the choppy, meandering script, uneven pacing, and nagging malaise that tend to drag down and sabotage this potentially dazzling work. 'New York, New York' is often a maddening enigma, but various pieces of this puzzle provoke a heady, visceral response, stimulate the senses, and stoke one's passion for the medium, even if they all don't snugly interlock.
Scorsese set out to honor the great musicals of yore, replicating the splashy color, sumptuous sets and production values, and stylized sense of artifice that distinguish them from other genres, while at the same time modernizing the plot and adding a gritty realism more akin to '70s moviemaking and his own burgeoning cinematic viewpoint. The mix is often inspired, even if it seems incongruous and a tad sacrilegious. After all, who doesn't wish the musicals of the '40s and '50s were a little less perky and just a shade darker, and 'New York, New York' satisfies that yearning. Yet when Scorsese throws real characters battling heavy issues and wading through dysfunctional relationships onto soundstages trimmed with painted backdrops and dressed with fake snow and trees, it's more than a bit jarring. Still, it's all part of what makes this movie so unique and intriguing. You almost have to be a student of film (and especially an aficionado of Golden Age musicals) to truly enjoy and appreciate 'New York, New York' and understand what Scorsese strives to accomplish. If you're not, and you only look at the picture at face value, it loses most of its power and resonance, and its flaws become magnified.
It's 1945 and street-smart saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) wants to get laid on VJ Day. At a swanky hotel ballroom celebration headlined by Tommy Dorsey and his big band orchestra, Jimmy encounters WAC Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli) and tries every line in the book to lure her into the sack. Though he cracks her frosty veneer, he can't quite seal the deal. Her friend and his buddy, however, do hook up, and the next day Jimmy and Francine meet again, and Francine tags along to an audition, where Jimmy's progressive jazz style falls on deaf ears until Francine's honey vocals temper it. The result is an instantly uneasy and competitive professional partnership and personal relationship, both of which seem doomed from the get-go. The couple bickers yet bonds, separates and reunites, ultimately marrying and working together in a touring band. When the bandleader calls it quits, Jimmy takes over, but there's a power struggle between him and Francine, as her lightning rod talent fuels the band's success and eclipses Jimmy's cutting edge arrangements and stellar musicianship. Matters become further complicated when Francine becomes pregnant and departs the band, leaving it to flounder, and forcing Jimmy to question his artistic worth and resent his wife's rise to stardom.
In many ways, the story resembles that oft-told Hollywood heartbreak tale, 'A Star Is Born,' the most famous and artistic version of which not-so-coincidentally stars Minnelli's mother, Judy Garland. 'New York, New York' examines many of the same issues 'A Star Is Born' tackles - two creative people struggling to practice their art and win favor in an unforgiving industry while maintaining a loving relationship; the devastation and jealousy that ensue when the wife's career overshadows that of her husband; and the feminism and potential threat of emasculation that emerged in post-war society. The film also chronicles the changing face of music, and how jazz evolves from the big band era to a more modern, edgier sound.
And 'New York, New York' is a much edgier musical than the Golden Age films it salutes. On the one hand, Scorsese brilliantly recreates the look and feel of classic Hollywood musicals, most notably in the elongated but perennially dazzling 'Happy Endings' sequence, which was modeled after the 'Born in a Trunk' movie-within-a-movie in 'A Star Is Born' and borrows elements from 'Singin' in the Rain,' 'An American in Paris,' and Garland's iconic 'Get Happy' number from 'Summer Stock.' The film's lush colors, montages, intentionally artificial sets, and vintage stock footage used in the rear projection work are all pitch-perfect and a tribute to Scorsese's maniacal attention to detail and uncanny ability to adapt to almost any genre. Yet within this fantasy framework, he flips the genre on its ear by striving to tell a realistic story punctuated by all the grit and angst that distinguished his previous pictures, such as 'Taxi Driver' and 'Mean Streets.'
And it's this approach that both elevates and sabotages 'New York, New York.' It's a marvelous concept that never quite gels, and tends to put off most audiences who can't reconcile such darkness in what they feel should be a light, entertaining film. Jimmy and Francine are arguably one of the most unhappy couples ever to grace the screen, and their incessant and prolonged sniping doesn't win either character much viewer affection. And what do we make of a musical whose only "happy ending" is in the film-within-a-film of the same name? That's tantamount to treason to many fans of the genre. Still, I admire Scorsese's approach, and if one takes the time to scrutinize the movie in pieces rather than view it as a lumbering whole, it succeeds more often than it fails. A realistic musical may be difficult to accept, but it's also refreshing and strangely exhilarating.
No one close to resembling Robert De Niro ever starred in a Golden Age musical, and the out-of-type casting and excellent portrayal is yet another of the movie's pleasant surprises. De Niro brings charm, sensitivity, and warmth to the abrasive, pig-headed, tough-monkey Jimmy that makes us identify and sympathize with his character. Despite the larger-than-life presence of Francine, 'New York, New York' is really Jimmy's story, and De Niro keeps it as real as he can, even during some of the strained comedy sequences. He also plays some of the best air saxophone I've ever seen, making it tough to believe he's not actually performing the complex arrangements.
And then there's Liza Minnelli. She receives top billing in 'New York, New York,' and her performance, save for her Oscar-winning turn as Sally Bowles in 'Cabaret,' is perhaps her finest film work. But then again, she's basically playing her mother. For anyone who knows anything about Judy Garland, it's flat-out impossible not to regard Minnelli in this movie as a Garland impersonator. Sure, she handles the numerous instances of improvisation well, creates good chemistry with De Niro, and enjoys some top-drawer dramatic moments, but it's all within the parameters of the Garland persona. In the very first scene, dressed in her WAC uniform, she's the spitting image of her mother in the World War I sequences in 'For Me and My Gal,' and her line deliveries and mannerisms heavily evoke Garland as well. Minnelli's wide-eyed innocence in the 'Happy Endings' number is Garland personified, and the comparison gets downright spooky in the nightclub finale when Liza belts out the title tune replete with sequined outfit and fan hysteria in an obvious knock-off of a typical Garland concert from the 1960s. Some of the similarities - intentional or not - are the fault of the screenplay, and some simply have to do with plain old genetics, but there was only one Judy Garland, and anyone else - even her own daughter - is a pale imitation. And sadly, in this instance, Liza is stuck in that rut.
Vocally, Minnelli is in excellent shape, nicely replicating the Big Band singing style in the early part of the film, then letting her own signature colorings take over in an electrifying one-two-three punch of a trio of stellar numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb (the duo behind 'Chicago') - 'But the World Goes 'Round,' 'Happy Endings,' and the iconic title song, which many people forget she introduced. (I still think Minnelli sings 'New York, New York' better than Sinatra, who made it famous.) Amazingly, the song was not even nominated for an Oscar. (The sappy 'You Light Up My Life' won instead.)
'New York, New York' is not everyone's cup of tea. Even many fans of musicals don't like it. Yet there's much to love about Scorsese's film. He honors a beloved genre well, adds substance and a cynical edge, and presents the story and songs with flair and artistry. Some would call it a noble failure; others a qualified success. And while no one would ever rank 'New York, New York' up there with 'Raging Bull' or 'GoodFellas,' it deserves to be regarded as much more than a footnote in Scorsese's film canon. Watch it yourself and join the debate.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'New York, New York' arrives packaged in a standard Blu-ray case with the same Al Hirschfeld cover art that graced the previous special edition DVD. The BD-50 dual-layer disc features a video codec of 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC and a default DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The strange thing about this presentation is the lack of a main menu screen. Upon insertion of the disc, the film immediately begins following the various studio logos, with audio and subtitle options, scene selection, and special features only available via the pop-up menu when the movie is being played. When the film ends, it automatically begins once more - another frustrating aspect of the disc.
Like the film itself, 'New York, New York' is a mixed bag on Blu-ray, at times impressing with stunning clarity and beautiful color saturation, but often finding itself engulfed in heavy grain. While the grain certainly emphasizes the film's period feel and evokes the Technicolor musicals of yore, its presence occasionally distracts and softens both the image itself and its impact. MGM should be commended for not smoothing out the texture, and aficionados of the movie won't really mind it, but this isn't the spanking new, dazzling remaster that many of us didn't expect, but certainly hoped for.
A few specks and marks dot the print, but it's easy to dismiss them. A nice sense of depth opens up the film in its splashier moments, but background images tend to blur a bit. Colors, on the whole, are vibrant and lush, with bold reds especially perky and no evidence of bleeding. Liza's painted lips and nails grab our attention, as does her sequined gown in the 'Aces High' number. Blacks vary in intensity; sometimes they're rich and inky, and other times they feel a bit anemic, and fleshtones are stable and true throughout. Contrast is generally good, even in the numerous dark scenes that pepper the picture. Close-ups are sharp, but lack the razor quality of some transfers, yet the extreme shot of Liza's big brown eyes is stunning.
This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort may not rank with the best high-def transfers, but all-in-all, it's an apt representation of the film's original look. Scorsese fans may be disappointed with the result, but for an almost-35-year-old film that hasn't been touched up too much, it's very watchable.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a mixed bag, too. Most of the sound is anchored up front, and there's not a lot of stereo separation to flesh it out. At first, I really had to tinker with the volume control to find an acceptable level that would allow the dialogue to be completely understood. Once that task was accomplished (at several notches higher than my normal listening level), I scrutinized the music track, which never achieved the desired degree of pizzazz. The jazz instrumentals on the 'New York, New York' album soundtrack are terrific, but they sounded just a tad flat here, lacking dimension and warmth. At times during the musical numbers, especially Liza's show-stopping 'But the World Goes 'Round,' distortion seemed just a hare's breath away. I did get some goose bumps during the climax of the title tune, but I expected more dynamic range and fidelity from the vocals and music.
Once I adjusted the volume, dialogue was largely comprehendible, although the actors occasionally mumbled some lines. Surround activity, however, is virtually non-existent, and the lack of subwoofer activity keeps the audio maddeningly mundane. Sadly, "mundane" might be the best way to describe this track, which may accurately represent the original film's sound, but falls far short of expectations.
All the supplements from the recent special edition DVD have been ported over, which is good news. What's here is interesting, if not particularly well presented.
A second, 10-minute commentary features cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs remarking on selected scenes and the complexities of some of Scorsese's shots, the red gels used in a nightclub scene, and the one continuous take that comprises Minnelli's 'But the World Goes 'Round' number.
Depending on your point of view, 'New York, New York' inspires a gamut of reactions spanning love, hate, and indifference. Director Martin Scorsese's affectionate tribute to the glossy Hollywood musicals of a bygone age buckles a bit under its own weight, but emerges a meticulously produced, often affecting tale of romance, creativity, ambition, and maturation. Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli both do themselves proud, and though the film may not rank among Scorsese's best, it remains a signature effort that deserves attention and respect. The Blu-ray features good quality video, decent audio, and a fine array of supplements. This may not be the optimum high-def presentation of 'New York, New York,' but it's nice to see this underrated film - which definitely deserves a good, long look - in the format.