Cult classics revisited: ‘New York, New York’ – a critical look

Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese have enjoyed one of the most fruitful collaborations in film history.  Starting with 1973’s Mean Streets, the two film giants have been responsible for some of the greatest movies in American cinema: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), The King of Comedy (1983), and Goodfellas (1990). In the midst of these crime dramas, the two worked together on a rather strange project – a rather dark and dour musical, 1977’s New York, New York. This film is a departure of sorts for both director and his muse because it moves away from the crime drama genre. A commercial failure at its release, it has since grown among Scorsese’s fans, some of whom admire the famed director for stretching beyond his comfort zone. The film is also an interesting artifact of the 1970s because it was released during the brief moment when Liza Minnelli was a huge movie star, seemingly on the cusp of usurping Barbra Streisand as Hollywood’s prime diva. The film also came out during a decade that wasn’t well-known for musical films, but one that was marked by some notable successes (Grease, Fiddler on the Roof) and some notable failures (The Wiz, At Long Last Love). What is remarkable about New York, New York is that it recalls the musicals of the genre’s golden period (when Minnelli’s parents director Vincent Minnelli and actress-singer Judy Garland ruled), but attempts to fold in the gritty realism of the New Hollywood.

Upon viewing New York, New York, it’s clear that Scorsese has done his homework. Not only does he borrow elements from Vincent Minnelli’s greatest works, but at times New York, New York also will remind viewers of such classic musicals as Singin’ in the Rain and A Star Is Born, not only with theme, but also with the structuring and the plot. De Niro stars as Jimmy Doyle, a talented but volatile saxophonist, whose journey to success often is marred by his short temper. At a V-J Day party he meets with the lovely Francine Evans (Minnelli). The two don’t hit it off immediately, but due to his bullying nature, she finds herself with him the next day sharing a cab with him, and she saves the day when she intervenes at a bad audition by singing, thereby getting Jimmy a job, with herself as a girl singer. The two set off on a tempestuous relationship that is marked by Jimmy’s violent outbursts – and it ends sadly when he abandons Francine after giving birth to their kid. She goes on to a successful career as a singer-actress, while Jimmy forges a successful career as a well-regarded jazz musician.

It’s obvious that Francine is based on Judy Garland, and it’s a bit eerie to see her daughter play a character so closely related to her; Minnelli’s outfitted in 1940s drag and closely resembles Garland, particularly when she was filming Meet Me in St. Louis. And at times, during the musical numbers, she sounds like Garland, as well – both share a throbbing, vibrato-laden belt of a voice (though Minnelli’s can sound a bit braying when she extends the notes a touch too long).

Minnelli in a Garland-inspired look at Francine Evans

And in an homage to Garland’s legendary sequence “Born in a Trunk” from A Star Is Born, Minnelli is gifted with a twelve-minute musical number “Happy Endings” that chronicle Francine’s rise to superstardom. It’s a well-done musical number that interrupts the flow of the film – but the film is so strangely plotted, that it doesn’t hurt the pacing of the film to have it be stopped for an exceedingly long musical number. It’s in the “Happy Endings” musical number that we see just what an anachronism Liza Minnelli really is – she was born in the wrong era, and hasn’t been able to fit in with her contemporaries – and she seems ill-at-ease with Scorsese’s demanding, Method-like direction, a jumble of her patented bag of quirks and tics – but in a grand old musical number with chorus girls and dancing boys, she transcends her limitations and appears wholly at home. While Minnelli’s screen persona in the 1970s was supposed to be the lovable kook, she really was an old-fashioned Broadway baby since her debut, and she acts as a rip in Scorsese’s hyper-realistic tableau – someone like  Talia Shire or Catherine Moriarty would’ve been able to disappear into the film (if either could sing), but Minnelli stands out, and not in an entirely positive way: the viewer can never forget that Liza Minnelli is on screen.

But as uncomfortable as Minnelli is under Scorsese’s work, De Niro is predictably brilliant, though the role is another in a long line of passionate, flawed, anti-heroes who let their anger get the best of them. Even though Jimmy wields a saxophone instead of a gun, he’s still reminiscent of De Niro’s more popular mobster roles, because there’s an unpleasant ominous edge to the actor’s performance. It’s obvious that De Niro feels far more able in Scorsese’s vision (even if it is a musical film), than Minnelli, as he fares far better than she.

New York, New York is a noble failure because Scorsese’s taking quite a risk. He doesn’t pull it off, but it’s difficult to resent the prolific filmmaker for trying because the film’s great proof of his love of film and his respect of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The film has major pluses namely De Niro’s complex performance and Minnelli’s singing of a wonderful score (penned by her longtime collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb). As with Minnelli’s sole film triumph, Cabaret, in New York, New York, she gets a rousing finale – belting out the title tune (which would become a standard in her shows), and as with the “Happy Endings” passage, one could almost forgive Scorsese and Minnelli for their failed effort because both provide fleeting moments when it felt like we’re watching an MGM musical from the studio’s heyday.

Minnelli and De Niro jamming

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