New York, New York (1977)


New York, New York
Dir. Martin Scorsese
Premiered June 21, 1977

New York, New York is a difficult film. It was a tribute to the big-band musicals of Old Hollywood in a time when paying tribute to Old Hollywood was on par with fascism. As the follow-up to director Martin Scorsese’s breakout hit Taxi Driver, it wasn’t what people expected. Scorsese was barely able to control the production and shot for a gargantuan 4 1/2 hour running time. Watching New York, New York is watching a good film buried by convention, compromise, and overambition.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, shifty saxophonist Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro) endlessly pesters USO singer Francine Evans (Liza Minelli) for a date. She’ll have none of it, and the more she learns about him the less she likes, but when circumstances lead the two to perform together, something changes. What is otherwise a fine working relationship is mistaken for romance.

For the next couple of years, Jimmy and Francine tour as part of a touring jazz band, which becomes increasingly difficult as Middle America settles down and stops going out to dance. Jimmy and Francine marry while traveling, and when Jimmy is made bandleader, he is overcome with anger, jealousy, and control issues– all of which are inflicted most on Francine and her own rising star.

Many critics have decried the folly of combining an ostentatiously artificial throwback to postwar musicals with moody character-based drama, but the issues are more with each of the two parts than their combination. The toxic relationship between Jimmy and Francine is well-acted and well-written, but in no way does it justify two full hours of screentime. Equally, the third act, which we may assume was originally the second half, and is by far the most engaging and visually interesting portion, is preposterously truncated. That this proverbial money shot was subject to the majority of cuts by the studio is baffling. The music works a little too well; by emulating the golden age of movie musicals, songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb have managed to sound like everything else, and only the title track is memorable.

Altogether, New York, New York is both a technical achievement and a failed experiment. Everyone involved is capable of better.

Additional Notes
Francine is cast in a big movie musical wherein she stars as an usherette at a musical theater who experiences a long Singin’ in the Rain–esque digression wherein she fantasizes about starring in a musical. Let me repeat: Liza Minelli stars in a musical in which she stars in a musical in which she stars in a musical. Cocaine is a hell of a drug.

How Did It Do?
Grossing $14 million against a $16 million budget, New York, New York was a notorious flop. The film ended Scorsese’s marriage to author Julia Cameron, and began his severe descent into depression drug abuse, as well as his relationship with star Liza Minelli, who ended up saving his life when he experienced what can only be described as Ebola-like symptoms after taking a bad batch of cocaine while directing the following year’s The Last Waltz.

Most critics have been kinder than one might expect, considering the movie’s reputation, earning a 67% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, though the majority of positive reviews prominently feature major caveats about its quality.

Of course, the legacy of New York, New York doesn’t end there. Or should I say the legacy of “New York, New York.” In 1981, Frank Sinatra recorded a cover of the main theme, and while not a hit, it has had some serious staying power, most notably as the victory song for most New York-based sports teams, as well as any number of film and television montages about New York City.

Next Time: The Rescuers


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