In 1977 director Martin Scorsese was on a roll. Hot off the critical and commercial success of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, and Taxi Driver, he was given free rein to do whatever he wished. His pet project was very complex: a blending of cinema verité and the elaborate musical sequences of the 1940’s. Scorsese felt confident enough in his ideas. That he began shooting New York, New York without a finished screenplay. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t a good idea.

New York, New YorkIn New York City on VJ Day in August 1945, Jimmy Doyle (Robert De Niro), a selfish and smooth-talking saxophone player, meets singer Francine Evans (Liza Minnelli). Though she initially wants nothing to do with him, Jimmy’s relentless harassment tinged with seduction eventually wins her over. A talented musician, Jimmy has some interesting ideas regarding jazz music that seem hopelessly out of pace in a decade dominated by the big bands. Jimmy is immature and quick to fly off the handle, while Francine is a sweet girl, blessed with a big voice. Despite every indication that Jimmy is a complete nut, the two fall in love and marry. Francine helps Jimmy land a steady gig with a traveling big band. But Francine’s rising star sparks tensions between the two, especially when Jimmy’s career prospects are limited.

The two fight and make up. They fight some more. Francine gets pregnant, and Jimmy gets going. And so it goes, for more than two and a half hours.

Scorsese succeeds in creating the look and feel of the old MGM musicals, but his desire to contrast 70’s realism with the stylized artificiality of the 1940’s doesn’t gel. The fatal flaw is creating such a glitzy spectacle, and failing to develop characters that we can care about. I mean what were Scorsese and the writers thinking when they dreamed up Jimmy Doyle? Did they really think audiences were going to embrace this guy who acts like a cross between Travis Bickle and Jake LaMatta? He’s so cruel and obnoxious; I wanted him to disappear a half hour into the film. Jimmy’s lack of any redeeming qualities makes watching his scenes increasingly difficult.   However, its Francine’s passive reaction to all the abuse hurled her way. That’s even more disturbing. She allows herself to be a doormat, which given the length of the film, means we stop having sympathy for her.

New York, New York is one of those films were I always wonder what could have been. In 1977 Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli should have been a perfect pair. De Niro was young, and at the height of his career; Minnelli had won an Oscar for 1972’s Cabaret; as her performance of the title song shows, she had a golden voice. Unfortunately, New York, New York is a bloated misfire.

Not surprisingly, New York, New York tanked at the box office, sending Scorsese into a personal tailspin. According to Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, the director and Liza Minnelli were having a less-than-clandestine affair fueled by cocaine. In Andy Warhol’s Diary, the artist recalled that Minnelli, with Scorsese in tow, showed up on Halston’s doorstep one evening begging for “every drug you’ve got.” Scorsese and his then-wife, writer Julie Cameron, divorced shortly after the completion of the film and the birth of the couple’s child.

Thankfully, Scorsese, De Niro, and Minnelli would all rebound from the disappointment of New York, New York and entertain us in the decades to come. It’s just ashame they didn’t produce a better film all those years ago.

Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1, New York, New York occasionally looks dated, but at other times, things are rather lush looking. Fleshtones look rather accurate. Sharpness varies from scene to scene, and the image looks a bit hazy at times. Colrs and black levels hold their own, but aren’t anything remarkable.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix features more than acceptable fidelity, but the spread is across the front screen channels with very little drifting toward the rears either in terms of music or ambient sound. Dialogue is sometimes a bit muffled with music drowning out words, and the LFE channel doesn’t supply much deep bass to give added emphasis to the superb music on the soundtrack.

The special features are presented in standard definition.

  • An introduction by Martin Scorsese (5:35) is a truncated version of remarks he makes elsewhere on the DVD’s retrospective documentary (and repeated in the commentary). The director outlines how he wanted to explore the tension between old-Hollywood artifice and new-Hollywood naturalism.
  • Audio Commentary alternates between Scorsese and Philadelphia Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey. The director’s encyclopedic knowledge of cinema always makes for an informative and entertaining time. Rickey’s remarks add some interesting insight.
  • Alternate takes and deleted scenes (19:11) reveals the extent of improvisation that Scorsese and the actors employed, but this stuff was excised for a reason.
  • The Stories of New York, New York is broken into two parts, with respective running times of 25:39 and 26:57. The mini-docs are thorough, featuring interviews with Scorsese, producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, screenwriter Mardik Martin, director of photography Laszlo Kovacs, Editor Tom Rolf and others. Winkler is blunt in his assessment of New York, New York: “It doesn’t quite work, frankly.”
  • Liza on New York, New York (22:53) Has Minnelli discussing her life as the child of two famous parents, her career, and experiences making New York, New York.
  • Commentary on selected scenes with Laszlo Kovacs (10:14) The veteran cinematography describes the headaches that stemmed from coordinating Scorsese’s often complicated visions.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • Teaser Trailer