"They say that only five people in the whole world, you know, know really what it's about."
Just one year after he crafted his quintessential masterpiece, Martin Scorsese returned with an epic musical drama titled ‘New York, New York’. Like many things that were released in the summer of 1977 it was inevitably crushed by the might of ‘Star Wars’ but that hasn’t stopped people debating over where it stands in comparison to the rest of Scorsese’s work.
Set primarily in post-WWII New York City the film follows the relationship between a jazz saxophonist (Robert De Niro) and a pop singer (Liza Minnelli) as they fall in love and marry. But the saxophonist's outrageously volatile personality places a continual strain on their relationship, and after they have a baby, their marriage crumbles.
One thing that I have noticed about this film is that while many dismiss it instantly and others regard it as one of the lesser entries in Scorsese’s filmography. I’ve found that those who do like it however, not only enjoy it but praise ‘New York, New York’ as one of the director’s forgotten masterpieces. I am most definitely not in that mind set. While I can admire its scale and its aesthetics, beneath the glitz and glamour it ultimately feels like an empty and hollow affair, the lacks any form of cohesiveness and is just a sprawling mess.
To be fair that sounds overly harsh, because there is a lot to like about this film. One aspect that impressed me the most may have been Scorsese’s direction, for while he carries consistent themes and motifs throughout all of his films ‘New York, New York’ demonstrates a great versatility in his directing, particularly in how he directs the musical scenes. The performers, bands and musicians are hot with loving care and detail, revelling in the rhythmic beat and tempo of the music. The editing is also spot on and though that may be something you take for granted in any other film in musicals it does make a real difference, cut at the wrong time or drag a take for too long and you may find the pacing and style of the musical numbers thrown off as a result. If the rhythm of the editing is not synchronised to that of the music then both can suffer as a result, the whole sequence feels mismatched. I feel as if this is where many movie musicals fall down (‘Chicago’, ‘Les Miserables’, etcetera), they try to direct the music as if it is still taking place on stage rather than using the medium of film to any unique effect, not taking into account the benefits of editing and multiple levels of staging. But Scorsese doesn’t fall foul of this, even in his lesser films he proves he is a born filmmaker.
The performances are mostly a mixed bag. While De Niro is fantastic in almost everything else from that era here he seems to be stuck with an oddly shallow caricature. It brings back painful memories of some more recent De Niro performances in which he seems uninterested in the role and character, not striving to explore its dramatic potential and just enjoying his time on the film set. Liza Minelli also can’t elevate her role to any dramatic heights and given that the whole film rests on their relationship, my disassociation from their characters was somewhat detrimental to the films narrative. Both of them are put to good use within the musical sequences but beside that there isn’t much substance to their characters.
I understand that this is meant to be a homage to the big musical numbers of Hollywood’s Golden Age but it’s not tweaking the genre in any interesting way, nor is it exploring it to a greater extent. Its costumes and set pieces fit the criteria perfectly but there is nothing underneath them to sustain the movie on a dramatic or comedic level. Maybe it’s just because of the higher standards I’ve come to expect from Scorsese by this point, or possibly the fact that he is coming directly from the masterful character study that is ‘Taxi Driver’ but a sprawling and often unfocussed musical epic like this just feels very odd in comparison, especially as this is just such a drastic departure in both genre and quality.
Sprawling and unfocussed, while visually dazzling and epic in scope, ‘New York, New York’ ultimately falls flat.