As an example of Scorsese’s early studio work, New York, New York is an interesting piece of cinema history. But, even though it’s touted as a musical and it features songs written for the movie by the legendary Broadway team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, it’s nowhere near as entertaining as stand-alone Kander & Ebb work, like Chicago and Cabaret.
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New York, New York, 34 years after its initial release, now carries some incidental baggage. Featuring a young, angry asshole played by Robert De Niro, it has to contend with other performances of angry asshole De Niro as directed by Scorsese. This movie’s Jimmy Doyle blurs with Jimmy Conway, Ace Rothstein, and Travis Bickle.
Unfortunately for Jimmy Doyle, he’s possibly the least sympathetic of the bunch, which is saying something about those other characters.
In this case, the regular bouts of arguing and hothead hostility get old fast. A quick musical and visual medley depicts a whirlwind romance between Jimmy and Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli, Cabaret) and that’s as strong as their relationship gets. Really, these two characters don’t belong together and it’s unfathomable why they get together... get married (with a hostile-takeover style proposal)... then have a baby.
As Scorsese describes it in his commentary track, New York, New York is about two musical artists struggling with each other while trying to find their place in post-war New York. It’s positioned as a violent musical in line with A Star Is Born (the original 1954 version starred Liza’s mom, Judy Garland), A Coal Miner’s Daughter (about Loretta Lynn), and What’s Love Got to Do With It (about Tina Turner).
That said, it would’ve worked better if it tried to capture more of the creative madness behind the music, more along the lines of the genesis of the song New York, New York, as captured in some scenes, albeit not all that credibly. As it stands, the conflicts are driven less by creative differences and more by sheer character defects. Conflict for the sake of conflict isn’t interesting and Scorsese should’ve known better, even back then.
Big Town Blues
In the supplemental documentaries, the crew comments on their disappointment with the reception New York, New York received. Originally released one month after Star Wars, it tanked. Then an extended cut was released in 1981 to modestly better results. But perhaps that was riding the tide of Frank Sinatra’s version of the theme song becoming the definitive song of New York in 1979. The speculation is the audience wasn’t happy with the unhappy ending (despite a song entitled Happy Endings earlier in the film; the musical number was restored to its full length in ‘81 after being trimmed for the ‘77 release). Really, the movie doesn’t have an ending at all. It just ends.
But the ending isn’t the only problem. It’s a downer almost through and through with no redemption for the characters. The musical numbers stand out, but Scorsese does what Scorsese is wont to do: He fills the movie with conflict, dull conflict in this case, and raised voices with De Niro once again going ballistic at the drop of a hat. It seems as though Scorsese is prone to confuse obnoxious, irrational, unsympathetic characters with interesting characters.
Not fun that. It’d be interesting to go back to the original screenplay, the one by Earl Rauch (who went on to write the cult classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension!) and see the original tone and tenor of the movie. An on-set writer and Scorsese pal, Mardik Martin, was brought on board to craft new dialogue as the film’s wayward direction drifted from one scene to the next, so the end film can’t be taken as a pure interpretation of Rauch’s screenplay.
This Blu-ray release is essentially a port of the 30th Anniversary DVD from 2007, which in turn contained supplemental materials from previous DVD editions. Unfortunately, the 2007 set’s photo and image galleries did not make the transition. Keeping things low-budget on this catalog title, all of the supplemental features are accessed from a pop-up menu.
The video introduction by Martin Scorsese (5:36) is interesting and it hits some of the key points of his running commentary, such as the recreation of 1940s film artifice with a 1970s sense of realism. Also discussed is the intent to shoot in 1.33:1 (the original theatrical aspect ratio which was duplicated by TV sets up until the advent of high-def TVs built with the 1.78:1 aspect ratio).
Scorsese was recreating, down to minute detail, 1940s musicals, duplicating even their elements of artifice, like the blue screen effects and street curbs being too high. There’s also that faux outdoor scene in a snowy, tree-lined setting that’s clearly a studio construction. It’s an interesting notion on a technical level, but as a film to watch, the technique must take a back seat to the story and characters at hand.
It’s also interesting to hear Scorsese’s take on the movie’s financial and critical failure. He comments on how Star Wars which redefined movies with a story that was told faster and was based on mythology.
In all, Scorsese’s commentary is detailed, technical, and astute. It’s well worth a listen for film students.
The spotty commentary contributions from film critic Carrie Rickey sound stilted as she reads from her script. She basically chimes in on rather obvious narrative elements. Contrast that with Scorsese’s expert, free-wheeling, speaking from the mind approach and the two styles are like night and day. It’s easy to listen to Scorsese ramble. Listening to Rickey read from her cheat sheets is painful.
The New York, New York Stories is a two-part behind-the-scenes documentary (52:29 total) that features interviews with Scorsese, Laszlo Kovacs, and other key behind-the-scenes personnel. It incorporates extensive use of film footage and on-set stills. It’s unfortunate there’s no behind-the-scenes footage, but that’s a consequence of the era in which the movie was made. An interesting tidbit from the tail end of Part Two: A post mortem discussion of the movie’s ending with Bertrand Tavernier led to the making of ‘Round Midnight.
Liza on New York, New York (22:09) is a really good, high-level retrospective on Liza’s background, her parents, and the influences that took her from Hollywood to Broadway. Liza comments on how hyper-stylized the movie was and how wonderful it is to look at. Yes. The movie looks good, Liza; the problem, though, is the story simply doesn’t work well. To that end, Liza’s remarks about the heavy reliance on improvisation are clues to the story’s downfall.
Alternate Takes/Deleted Scenes (19:14) is a collection of sometimes scratchy, but otherwise mostly complete, scenes presented in the incorrect aspect ratio of roughly 2.35:1. It’s somewhat interesting to see the improv work that frustrated editor Tom Rolf.
Also included are the teaser trailer and theatrical trailer.
There are none.
Picture and Sound
Rating the picture and sound on this release is a tough call.
On the plus side, it is presented in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which means 1.78:1 TV screens will display black bars to the left and right of the picture, as opposed to the top and bottom in 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 movies. This is also a highly experimental movie in terms of visuals and the efforts to recreate a visual tone from the 1940s. Image softness and film grain (don’t write it off as digital noise, kids) are at times overwhelming, but that is more likely a reflection of the film medium rather than the quality of the Blu-ray transfer.
Overall, the picture quality is appreciated. It evokes a theatrical feel, which is ultimately Blu-ray’s goal. And the print is by-and-large free of pock marks and defects.
The audio is presented in 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio, but it’s a track that also reflects the film’s age. It’s a decidedly front-channels track.
Additional audio options are Spanish mono, French 5.1 DTS, German 5.1 DTS, Italian 5.1 DTS, and Castellano 5.1 DTS.
Subtitles are available in English for the deaf and hard of hearing and 16 additional languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, and German for the hard of hearing. A nice addition is the inclusion of English subtitles for the main commentary track.
How to Use This Disc
Watch Scorsese’s intro then brace yourself for the good and the bad that’s found in New York, New York.