NEW YORK NEW YORK

(1977)
With Liza Minelli, Robert De Niro, Lionel Stander, Mary Kay Place
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Reviewed by JB

     A kind of modern-day  A STAR IS BORN, NEW YORK NEW YORK, Martin Scorsese's homage to movie musicals of old, is one of his most fascinating movies.  That's not to say that it is successful, only that when the world of MGM, Judy Garland and Vincent Minelli, as represented by Liza Minelli, collides with the streetwise world of Martin Scorsese, as represented by Robert De Niro, something interesting is bound to happen.  One can easily imagine Judy Garland and Gene Kelly starring in a film like this in the '50s, or Robert Redford co-starring with Minelli, making NEW YORK NEW YORK a more conventional film.

     But Scorsese would have none of that.  Choosing De Niro as his leading man, he creates a hybrid movie that is entertaining all over but not all at once.  Concentrate on Minelli singing the hell out of songs like "The Man I Love" or "The World Goes Round" and you're enjoying one movie.  Concentrate on De Niro playing a jazz saxophone player as a close cousin to Johnny Boy from MEAN STREETS or Travis Bickle from TAXI DRIVER and you're enjoying another movie.  But the two worlds sit uncomfortably together and never coalesce.  To her credit, Minelli throws herself wholeheartedly into Scorsese's world of improvised dialogue, holding her own against De Niro's abusive horn player, but the movie's love story fails because of De Niro's refusal to play a likable character.  You can spend the whole movie wondering what Minelli's pop singer sees in De Niro's jazz man, and by the end, you still won't know.

     There is a truckload of eclectic talent here, including beloved character actor Lionel Stander, Mary Kay Place (fresh off TV's Mary Hartman) and Bruce Springsteen sideman Clarence Clemens. The music is magnificent, and that includes the now-famous theme song, sung by Minelli but later co-opted by Frank Sinatra.  Scorsese utilizes some of the artifice of older musical, such as painted backgrounds (check out the trees in the scene where Minelli and De Niro argue in the snow), extras wearing bright colors, and obvious sets representing the streets of New York.  His recreation of an old-style movie musical, in a scene that was originally cut but later reedited into the film, is perfect.

     But I imagine that many filmgoers of 1977 (my parents, who saw this when it came out, not knowing who Scorsese was) may have been expecting exactly that - an old-style movie musical starring Judy Garland's multi-talented daughter Liza, and that new kid everybody was talking about, Robert Pacino or somebody.  Instead, they got Scorsese and De Niro invading an old-style movie musical and attempting to turn it into a Scorsese - De Niro film.  It plays better now than it did back then, but it still remains a difficult, defiant piece of work, one that will not completely satisfy fans of TAXI DRIVER or SINGIN' IN THE RAIN3½ - JB

Martin Scorsese     The Stuff You Gotta Watch

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