#24 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
Martin Scorsese was at the height of his drug abuse phase when he conceived of New York, New York, a movie about two musicians that can never be together even though they love each other, told in the style of a big budget musical from Hollywood’s golden age. I actually think this movie could have worked with its contrasting visual aesthetic and subject matter, except that the technique that Scorsese leaned into undermined a lot of what he was building. I think the movie gets better as it goes along, but it never rises above mediocrity overall, hampered heavily by a drag of an opening hour and a filming approach that made tightening this small story down to a manageable level almost impossible in editing.
I’ve read commentary on this film that points to its combination of visual style and narrative style as the source of the film’s issues. I don’t agree. I think the problem has to do with improvisation. In the introduction to the film on the DVD, Scorsese talks about how he pushed the improvisational methodology he had been working with on his previous two films, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver, into overdrive. Liza Minelli has said that almost every line of dialogue was improvised. What this ends up doing, especially in the beginning, is creating a feeling of scenes that meander aimlessly looking for a point for an extended period of time. It drags the movie down greatly, and it ends up creating a long series of small distractions that keep the film from gaining the kind of focus on its emotional element that it really needed. The irony, of course, is that improvisation is meant to create a greater sense of reality amongst your characters, but when all you have is improvisation you do get that look at the characters but the emotional journey they’re on gets lost at the same time.
The story is about Jimmy Doyle and Francine Evans who meet on VE Day in a New York club. He’s a sax player and she’s a singer, and he falls for her instantly. When she gets a job in a travelling band, he gives up his newly acquired gig in a small place in New York to chase after her, getting a job in the band as well. They fall in love and get married. He gets control of the band when the owner and leader sells it to him, and the conflict between husband and wife begins to develop. He has his seat of authority, and she steps on his toes. When she becomes pregnant, she goes back to New York and begins to work with a record producer on a demo record for a potential record contract while Jimmy stays with the band and it slowly falls apart without Francine’s voice. Jimmy’s failure as an artist and manager works against his marriage as Francine’s career begins to rise in prominence, ending just as she becomes famous and successful on her own.
This emotional throughline is solid, good stuff. The problem is that it gets lost in this nearly three hour film where almost every scene is an example of loving your actors too much. There’s no focus, so while the story could have been a touching one about two creative people unable to make a life together work, it ends up being an unsteady artifice instead. That’s not to say that the improvisation is all bad. There’s quite a bit of good, sometimes very funny stuff to come from these interactions, but the overall story suffers for the search for those moments. This isn’t Terrence Malick building a dreamscape around captured moments, this is Martin Scorsese aping the big budget musicals of his youth. This level of improvisation only works, I think, in very narrow terms.
Another odd thing about the film is that it has the look of a grand Hollywood musical, but it never fully utilizes the capabilities of the genre. It actually works best when it does. Francine’s grand emotional moment comes in the final hour when she records the song “But the World Goes ‘Round” and we get a spotlight on her (in a recording booth) while the rest of the lights dim to darkness, highlighting her as she claims her own independence despite the hurt she’s just received from Jimmy choosing to end his marriage with her. There’s a moment early in the film when Jimmy, fresh out of leaving the club where he met Francine, sees a seaman and a woman (who was, apparently, Liza Minelli in a blonde wig) dancing under a streetlamp like they’re in their own private musical number to music that we never hear. The extended cut has a long sequence near the end that shows Francine’s Hollywood spectacular, Happy Endings, which mirrors her own life and desire for a happy ending. It’s a movie about musicians with the visual aesthetic of a musical, but there are shockingly few musical numbers. I wonder if embracing that element more might have helped give the overall movie some of the emotional focus it really needed.
In some ways this reminds me of Hitchcock’s (far more successful, in my opinion) Under Capricorn, where Hitchcock took a technical element he had been experimenting with (the long take, like in Rope) and took it as far as contemporary technology would allow him. Scorsese created an elaborate production around a production technique of improvisation and took it as far as it would go. It seems to be connected to a certain desire for control without needing to rely on weather, permits, and homeowners, a common enough concern for people who control film productions, but it’s also a desire to embrace a certain artificiality. Francis Ford Coppola went through something similar with One From the Heart, and Fellini, one of Scorsese’s main influences, was able to move from the neo-realist movement to elaborate stage-bound productions. I think he was doing something worthwhile in trying to combine the visual aesthetics of old Hollywood with emotional reality, trying to tell an emotionally resonant story in an artificial construct to full effect, but he undercut those efforts at the same time by essentially letting his actors drive the story on their own.
There’s a lot to admire in New York, New York. The production itself is wonderful to look at. De Niro and Minelli are very good together. The music is very good, even going so far as to be the source of the song that has become the Big Apple’s anthem, but the complete inability to sort through what is on the screen to find the emotional core hampers it from beginning to end.