Martin Scorsese has made more than a dozen films set in New York, New York, but the one that bears the full name of the city was shot on a Hollywood lot – an homage to the MGM musicals of the 40s.
You can’t help wondering what he was thinking. It was 1977. The previous year he and Robert deNiro stunned critics and audiences with Taxi Driver and Travis Bickle’s improvised “You talking to me?” soliloquy. They return with DeNiro clad in oversized shoulder pads and spats, noodling a saxophone and bullying America’s sweetheart. This against a background of 40’s big band lounges and painted sets, with a full half hour of Liza Minnelli ‘starring’ in a musical movie-within-a-movie.
It bombed. The studio withdrew it, axed 40 minutes of music – and it bombed again. When it came to musicals, audiences wanted Saturday Night Fever or Grease. And if the story was brutal, Scorses himself had taught them to expect reality, not rough stuff mixed up in glossy sets and glitzy costumes.
30 years down the road, the timing of its release is irrelevant and Scorsese’s musical passions have extended to docos The Last Waltz with The Band (1978), No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005) and last year’s Shine a Light with the Rolling Stones. He’s more than paid his musical dues and New York, New York is worth another look.
If it’s not one of Scorsese’s finest efforts, this movie takes chances, many of which play very well. DeNiro is loathsome as Jimmy Doyle, gifted saxman and borderline sociopath who sweeps the equally talented singer, Francine Evans (Minnelli) off her feet and marries her before she fully understands what she is getting into. Their on and off-screen chemistry is palpable and much of their banter is improvised with the cameras rolling.
The two-disc set includes and introduction and commentary by Scorsese as well as interviews with Scorsese and Minnelli and the producers reflecting on what they loved about it as well as why audiences hated it, alternate takes and alternate ending, deleted scenes, storyboards, a photo gallery and more. Best though, it comes with both the edited and original versions. If you’re a musical lover, glory in the Busby-Berkeley extravaganza. The rest of us however will enjoy studio’s cut much more.