It was a struggle trying to track down a copy of Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, I couldn’t find it on Amazon Prime, or ITunes and in the end I purchased a second-hand DVD. The cover features Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli walking down a sidewalk in the nighttime, it looked like a still from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver rather than a scene from a musical and it made me realise that even after all these years there is still confusion on how to present this gritty musical.
The film’s poster in 1977, also makes the film seem a dark, depressing drama with a black background and two images, the first seems to be typical of musicals with Bobby playing his saxophone for Liza, but then in the right hand corner we see him leaning against a lampost alone in the nighttime. It’s a confusing poster, is this a musical or something else? And this is all before we watch the actual film. I can understand why this film struggled to draw in an audience simply by the decision to use this poster for marketing the film.
The story opens on V-J Day in 1945. A massive celebration in a New York City nightclub is underway, music provided by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. While there, slick and smooth-talking saxophone player Jimmy Doyle (De Niro), meets small-time USO singer Francine Evans (Minnelli), and he keeps pestering her for her phone number despite her telling him “No.” a total of sixteen times. But he’s determined to win her affection, and the next morning their paths cross again in a hotel which Francine is checking into. It turns out that Jimmy is staying at the hotel and is avoiding paying his bills, he pulls Francine into his web of lies within the hotel lobby and makes a scene. The two of them quickly leave and end up sharing a cab, and, against her will, Francine accompanies Jimmy to an audition.
There he gets into an argument with the club owner about his style of music. Francine, to get the audition back on track, begins to sing the old standard, “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”; Jimmy joins in on his sax. They seem to work well together.
Francine leaves New York, to go on tour with a band and sends her agent with a letter telling Jimmy who quickly leaves the city to track her down so they can be reunited. And, they are reunited, they start a relationship, get married and become quite successful.
Then, Francine falls pregnant and their relationship suffers as a result, with Jimmy bailing when he realises he’s not fit to be a father. Despite being a single mother, Francine goes on to have a successful career as a singer and actress. Jimmy also has success as a musician and a club owner, his musical piece (the theme New York, New York) tops the jazz charts, but it’s Francine who becomes the real hit when she puts words to the music.
The film ends in typical New Hollywood fashion, rather pessimistically. Jimmy is keen to rekindle their relationship but Francine stands him up, leaving him alone on the sidewalk as New York, New York plays us out.
It is the miscasting of Robert De Niro which really affects the film, and he sticks out like a sore thumb, his presentation of Jimmy is less Fred Astaire and more Travis Bickle and as a result it makes it very hard to cheer for him. The beginning where he practically harrasses Francine for her telephone number makes for very uncomfortable viewing in 2018, and I wonder whether audiences in 1977 would have also felt it as well. It certainly feels very distrubing when we see the camera focus on the look of distress on Minnelli’s face, she looks so vulnerable and out of her depth, that you almost want to reach into the screen and comfort her.
The character of Jimmy seems deprived of any empathy, he doesn’t want Francine to succeed at her career, he only cares about his own success and fame. It’s hard to see any real redeeming characteristics in him, this is a man who stalks a woman across the entire country, rows and fights with his fellow musicians and is controlling over every aspect of Francine’s life, even sending her back to New York because she’s pregnant and he regards her as a liability.
It’s hard to understand why Francine’s puts up with this abusive relationship, and as a result the relationship between the two characters seems very false and distracting. Perhaps this was the reason why the audience of 1977 couldn’t connect with the film, maybe it reminded them too much of the baby boomer generation (their parents) and what they were actually seeking at the cinema was escapism rather than a bleak reminder of how corrupt and monstrous we can be to others who we supposedly claim to love.
The film’s budget was an astonishing $14 million, and it only managed to make $16.4 million at the box office, hardly a success story. And, it’s evident that Scorese got carried away with his access to a bottomless pot of gold, with the film’s elaborate sets such as the electrifying Neon Club which it’s red neon lights and gorgeous tunnel made up of flashing light bulbs. The film is set in forties, with money being required to recreate these sets and costumes, and we can see the dedication to detail that has been carried out, but of course period pieces need a larger budget than social realistic crime dramas which Scorese had built his career on. We can admire the director’s ambition and passion for the musical, but it’s clear that he is clearly out of his depth here, and crippling under the strain of scale of the picture.
At the same time, Scorsese’s peers were also filming their own films with massive budgets such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and with the press continuing to report about dramas occuring on and off set, maybe this soured the mood of the cinema attendee. The New Hollywood filmmakers had started out criticising the overinflated films being pushed out by the studios, but now they were making the same mistakes as the studios only a decade before. This realisation may have led many of viewers to perceive these New Hollywood filmmakers as hypocrites and as a result this led to the studios and the studio executives regaining control throughout the Eighties.
The original runtime of the film was 163 minutes and this is the runtime for the DVD version of the film, however in 1977 the studio recut the picture and trimmed it down to 136 minutes, and maybe some of the film’s magic was lost in that recut. Although the film suffers from an unlikeable male lead (through no fault of De Niro who does his best with the weak dialogue), a bloated runtime, and jittery nervous Minnelli who seems a little too good for this picture, it’s a film which seems larger than life. New York, New York presents us with a hypnotic dream world that seems to be forgotten; and there’s a reason why the musical genre died out, we all became aware that life doesn’t have happy endings but the truth is a bitter pill to swallow, and perhaps back in the late 1970s we wanted to keep believing the lie for a little bit longer.