Mike Sutton takes a look at the R1 MGM release of “New York New York”, available on its own and as part of the 4 film Martin Scorsese Collection. It’s a failure but an ambitious and rather beautiful failure which deserves to be seen. The quality of the DVD is frustratingly inconsistent.
An hour into New York New York, Liza Minnelli stands up in front of the band led by her husband to sing “The Man I Love”. Suddenly, for three minutes, time lapses back and you get a sudden flash of her mother, Judy Garland, singing “The Man That Got Away” in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born. There’s the same phrasing, the same almost indecent passion for the music and the same sense of a performer finding her own private rapture in the middle of practising her art. Some time later, she repeats the trick with the song “The World Goes Round”.
These few moments of infatuation are worth lingering over because they demonstrate what’s missing for too much of New York New York. There’s plenty of obsession in the filmmaking through Martin Scorsese’s love for old Hollywood movies and an undeniable fervour in Robert De Niro’s central performance. What’s missing is a sense of irrational, unbelievable passion between the characters and without this, the film doesn’t make dramatic sense. Yet, while the film doesn’t work in all sorts of ways, it’s still made with such visionary zeal that it still manages to be hugely impressive.
The story of two talented performers who can’t live together but can’t bear to be apart is hardly new. Francine Evans (Minnelli) and Jimmy Doyle (De Niro) meet in New York on VJ Day in August 1945 and Doyle, through his equation of relentless harassment with seduction, eventually manages to pick her up. He’s a talented saxophonist with ideas of improvisation and jazz influences which prove hopelessly out of place in the post-war dance bands which provide his only chance of wide exposure. Francine is an equally talented singer with big ambitions and no similar desire to take significant musical chances. They team up as a double act but tensions soon explode into outright hostility and it becomes apparent that they are both hopelessly irreconcilable as a couple and yet somehow incomplete when separated. The two careers also prove incompatible and its obvious that the happy ending which MGM would have provided them with in the 1940s is not going to be a foregone conclusion.
The template of two careers being contrasted is an immediate reminder of A Star Is Born. Judy Garland’s soubrette couldn’t find a way out of her disastrous relationship with James Mason’s fading actor and she ended up destroying him both with her relentless love and her successful career. The presence of Liza Minnelli is another reminder of Garland. However, except in that wonderful musical number I refer to above, Minnelli doesn’t have the same heartbreaking intensity which her mother radiated so naturally. At the time New York New York was made, she didn’t really have the tragic history either – thirty years later, it’s a different story and going by her almost hysterical turn at the 2004 Royal Variety Performance, Liza could still have a great over the top diva role within her which might even eclipse her mother’s Esther Blodgett. Liza is wonderful at times here though and she demonstrates some crack comic timing and a likeable ability to be silly without appearing foolish. Her eyes are also remarkable, telling a whole tragic story in themselves.
What she doesn’t have is chemistry with Robert De Niro. It’s essentially a conflict of two mismatched styles of acting. This should work for the plot – Francine’s planned approach contrasting with Jimmy’s urge to experiment – but it doesn’t. De Niro is very powerful here but the edginess of Travis Bickle is still emanating from him and he gives the impression of appearing in his own film. Martin Scorsese has often spoken of a desire to combine the classic Hollywood musical with an approach to character derived from John Cassavetes but the result is one person – Jimmy Doyle – mired in a post- Nouvelle Vague style and another – Francine – still living and breathing Old Hollywood. This is a huge problem for the story. I simply can’t believe, even after seeing the film any number of times, that these two people would ever form a connection. Doyle ends up coming across as obnoxious and self-obsessed and Francine emerges as weak-willed and far too lacking in self-esteem to ever make it as the career singer that she’s supposed to be. We get an awful lot of shouting, some amusing cross-talk comedy scenes and a bizarre lack of emotional heat. The film is certainly very touching and eventually very sad indeed – but if we accepted these two people as an eternal couple, desperately in love who can’t ever come together, then it would be absolutely heartbreaking.
Yet, what’s very strange is the way in which the film still has such an impact. I can’t think of many other works which are so obviously flawed but still so impressive – it’s not quite in the same class as those other glorious train wrecks like Heaven’s Gate and Intolerance but it’s somewhere near. Most dazzling is the look of the movie. Scorsese was desperately in love with Technicolor and wanted to use the old three strip process on New York New York. For technical reasons, this wasn’t possible but the look of the film remains quite remarkable. Colour is used for emotional impact in a way which resembles another film made in 1977, Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Like Scorsese, Argento seems to have been greatly influenced by other filmmakers and the use of colour is heavily endebted to the works of Vincente Minnelli – notably The Band Wagon – and Powell and Pressburger, principally Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The reds in Scorsese’s movie are quite overwhelmingly rich – the scene in the seedy club where Jimmy comes apart being the best example – and the beautiful immediacy of the other primary colours comes across with such intensity that you’re almost floored by the sight of them. Laszlo Kovack’s cinematography is a major achievement, making you think of classic MGM while retaining enough contrast and darkness to remind you of the dark world of film noir – and, of course, the combinations of the two at Warners such as My Dream Is Yours and Love Me Or Leave Me. There’s an element of control freakery here which seems to have overcome Scorsese in an attempt to recreate the look of late 1940s/early 1950s Hollywood movies but this is, in itself, turned into a style. Collaborating with the master production designer Boris Leven, he deliberately uses non-realistic devices such as very obvious mattes, studio-bound ‘exterior’ scenes, heavy shadows, the flooding of rooms with coloured light. This often comments on the artificiality of the conventions in which Jimmy and Francine can’t quite find a place for themselves. There’s a particularly marvellous moment in a snow-shrouded forest in which the artificial backdrop and the realistic truth of the emotions come together with an emotionally astounding effectiveness. One should also mention the songs of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the authors of Cabaret amongst others. They manage the difficult task of being true to the period and using some contemporary phrasing.
For Scorsese, New York New York turned into a hellish experience. He was pushing his budget and pushing himself into an area which was incredibly difficult, combining old and new to produce something seamless. The break up of his marriage, coinciding with this film, seems to have led him into a certain emotional ambivalence, making the film darker and more despairing than he intended. If he had found a way of making us believe in the central relationship then the film would be better remembered. Instead, the film is often regarded as a failure which is very unfair. It’s full of wonderful filmmaking technique and some individual scenes – especially the brilliant musical number “Happy Endings” towards the end which comments on the audience’s desire for things to work out in art which can’t work out in real life – are as good as anything he’s ever done. If it fails, it does so in a very impressive way and to be honest, I’d rather see a mess like New York New York than a technically brilliant and coherent but fundamentally tame and unexciting movie like The Aviator. Sometimes, the obvious failures of a great filmmaker are more ambitious and full of passionate fervour than their accepted successes and I think New York New York is a case in point.
MGM have almost released this film a couple of times before and I think that the delay has probably resulted, for once, in a better disc. For those who know about the film, the version on the disc is the full-length 163 minute version with the complete “Happy Endings” number which was cut for the original release and restored in 1981. The inclusion of this sequence is so fundamental to the film’s effectiveness that the shorter version isn’t really worth seeing.
The major disappointment is the non-anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer. MGM are becoming unreliable in their use of anamorphic enhancement and it’s this, among other things, which makes their product less consistently impressive than it should be. They have a wonderful back catalogue of United Artists films to explore and it’s about time they began making the most of it. The image on New York New York is equally inconsistent. It’s sometimes very soft and lacking in fine detail. At other times, it’s satisfyingly crisp. The colours are a knockout throughout, however, and the slightly grainy appearance is entirely appropriate for a film which is trying to cross the ‘Golden Ere’ styles and concerns of MGM and Warner Brothers.
The soundtracks are better. We get the original Mono track and a newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Both of these sound very impressive although the use of the surrounds on the remix isn’t particularly spectacular and mostly limited to the musical numbers. Dialogue remains clear throughout and the music is gorgeous.
The main extra feature is a commentary from Martin Scorsese and film critic Carrie Rickey. This hovers between the riveting and the very disappointing. Scorsese’ s comments are always fascinating, especially when he rambles about old movies and what he loved about them. But Rickey mostly points out the obvious – “Along with the new baby comes the death of their relationship” – and her voice is incredibly boring to listen to. Long stretches of the movie feature no comments at all and the end result is very unsatisfying. Fans will find it valuable in places but more casual listeners are likely to lose patience.
We also get some deleted scenes, obviously dispensable as none of them work very well, and a lavish photo gallery which is slightly spoiled by a bizarre decision to present it letterboxed. Rather better is an introduction to the film from Scorsese in which he explains what he was trying to do. Finally, there are two trailers for the film.
The film is divided into 32 chapter stops and is subtitled but the extra features are not.
New York New York is ultimately a failure but it’s a lovingly made, beautiful failure which deserves a much wider audience. This DVD presents it quite well but the visual transfer and commentary are certainly not as good as they could have been.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum